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When positive is a bad thing


We sometimes create unnecessary confusion when we mix terms of art with everyday language. Take the word "positive." Those of us who shelter under the wide umbrella of "positive training" mean "positive" in the way that most people do: we like to exchange good stuff for good behavior. Unfortunately, we get tripped up when we then try to explain the principles of operant conditioning that buttress our methods: "Well, positive punishment isn't actually part of positive training..." Aargh.

We might have an easier time if we substituted "addition" and "subtraction" for "positive" and "negative" in our description of the consequences that condition behavior. As awkward and ungrammatical as "addition punishment" might be, it would at least have the advantage of common sense. But for now we have "positive punishment," and I want to examine some of the fundamental reasons that it's bad not only in the moment for the trainee but in the long term for the trainer.

Sad to say, there are people who get a charge from punishing other creatures; we can define a sadist as someone who finds punishment (colloquially here, the infliction of suffering) reinforcing. These are often people whose insecurity runs so deep that they require cringing submission from dogs or children or spouses to reassure them of their power. The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article by Charles Siebert describing a shift in the attitude of police and others in law enforcement toward animal abuse: as they have come to recognize its strong correlation with other, human-directed forms of violence, they have begun to take it more seriously.

The fact that many serial killers begin by torturing animals is well enough established to have become something of a cliché in film and fiction, but I hadn't known how often animals are used as the levers of pressure in abusive family dynamics. According to Siebert, abusers will often threaten violence against a pet in order to bend other family members to their will. This kind of emotional blackmail has the horrible side effect of eroding empathy in the victim: a child who is helpless to protect a beloved dog or cat can only defend himself against the pain of identification by numbing himself to the animal's suffering, even to the extent of participating in the abuse.

Many (I want to think most) of us with pets use punishment more "judiciously," and yet it's difficult to make an indelible distinction between abusive and "constructive" punishment. On the question of what motivates abuse, Siebert quotes Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's senior vice-president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects: "I've spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime."

All social engagement requires negotiation. When we share our lives with other creatures, we often find that our desires clash. When compromise seems impossible, we may resort to force to impose our will. If we are not sadists, if our sense of compassion is strong enough that we feel the pain we inflict ("this hurts me more than it hurts you"), we punish because we're convinced that nothing else will work-- we don't know how else to interrupt or eliminate behavior we find unacceptable. In the heat of frustration or anger, we're often unable even to imagine other possible responses, let alone consider their relative efficacy.

Regardless of the soundness of our reasons and the resilience of our capacity for empathy, we punish because we can. We are only able to use pain as an "instructive tool" if we're at least momentarily in a position of superior power (real or credible): we either don't expect retaliation or are prepared to escalate our force if the other party fights back.
Committed positive trainers reject that contract. They recognize the fundamental imbalance of power that exists when one creature is dependent on another for its sustenance and many of its pleasures, but refuse in principle to exaggerate that advantage through the use of force. Indeed, many of our methods were developed in situations where coercion wasn't practicable, with wild animals in open spaces.

We reject punishment in principle, but as impulsive animals with many bad habits (maybe I should speak only for myself here!) we may sometimes find it difficult in practice to eliminate it from our training. Fidelity to positive reinforcement requires self-discipline, and so in the process of training other animals, we discover that our first, most important (and most challenging) task is to train ourselves.

Photo by Bob Pearson.



All dogs are bad

Just like people.

Jean Donaldson has many choice words in her book Culture Clash for people who endow their dogs with saintlike virtue, then bust them down to felon status when they misbehave. One of the greatest barriers to effective and positive training is the myth that dogs live to please us. Like all living things, they live to please themselves; they just happen to be more directly dependent than most on the whims of an alien and unpredictable species. Yes, they (or their ancestors) chose this fate for themselves (by degrees, over millennia); because humans are fickle and more powerful than wise, many animals have found that their best (or only) hope for survival lies in making themselves indispensable to us. Plants, too-- Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire offers four wonderful case studies of species that have piggybacked on the naked ape and thereby turned our unseemly success into their own.

Our long shared history with dogs does complicate the equation some. Many evolutionary biologists are less biased than they once were in the direction of Hobbesian viciousness (yes, it's hard to drop the moral vocabulary here); they begin to credit and elucidate the ways that humans and other social species find selfless behavior paradoxically rewarding. The phenomena of empathy and altruism do not contradict the tenets of Darwinian selection, but they do tangle them up rather beautifully. We have very good reasons, reasons articulated in creed and law but encoded in our DNA, to show consideration to others and selectively curb our "animal" appetites.

The spontaneous pleasure we often take from our own acts of kindness speaks to the adaptive value of generosity: it wouldn't feel so good if it didn't boost our chances in the genetic wheel of fortune. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has written a brilliant, persuasive, and finally dismaying account of how the human capacity for connection might have become so well-developed under one set of evolutionary pressures, and how it might just as naturally fall apart as those pressures shift. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding is the most compelling and nuanced synthesis of biology and anthropology I've yet read.

If dogs' ancestors were not already highly social, if they hadn't already evolved to take pleasure in the company of their fellows well before they got on the human gravy train, it's doubtful that we would ever have become so symbiotically enmeshed. As it is, dogs and humans have kept company for more than ten thousand years. In spite of our many differences and misunderstandings, both species have found it "good" to care, and extended our capacity to care across a great genetic gulf. It's not magical, but it is marvelous.


Just pretend!

There are many people from many fields now exploring the roots of the common (it appears biological) compulsion to play, and speculating on the adaptive advantages it may confer in the broad evolutionary sense and in the individual life. A coherent but inclusive definition of "play" is difficult to pin down, but I want to focus for now on play that includes an element of pretend, the magical "as if" that spreads a safety net under behavior that would otherwise be intolerably risky. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and author of Inside of a Dog, has spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours viewing and reviewing video of dogs at play, seeking to determine among other things how dogs effectively contract with each other to "fight" for fun.

The play bow-- head dipped and front legs outstretched while butt and tail are raised-- appears to be dog Esperanto for "I didn't mean that, and I don't mean this either! Ha!" An exchange of bows, deep or hieroglyphically sketched, typically initiates a friendly bout of wrestling or chasing, and the socially hep dog will repeat the gesture anytime the play contract seems to be fraying. As is the case with people, some dogs have a harder time than others remembering the rules of the game and honoring the agreed-upon distinction between "real" and "pretend." Indeed, play wouldn't be so compelling if that line were perfectly clear, if the safety net weren't a little patchy and the thrill of risk were entirely banished. But that's cold philosophical comfort when you're taking one dog to the vet because another never really got the hang of bite inhibition.