Trainer’s Corner: Minimally Aversive Training

I had just walked into a home the other day and found a water bottle on the counter. It was used to stop the family dog from counter-surfing, but the bottle stayed on the surface because the dog kept trying and it was a very frustrating problem for the family. It doesn’t surprise me. 

Although I don’t hear about that strategy as much anymore, I do still hear about it. To someone who doesn’t understand behavior, it seems mild enough to not cause any irreparable damage. 

However, even something that appears to be relatively non-intrusive can absolutely be and it also can be ineffective in changing behavior, at least in the long run.

The effects of positive punishment

The strategy of pulling out a water bottle falls into the quadrant of Positive Punishment (P+), which means something aversive (to the learner) is being added to the environment just after the behavior to lessen the likelihood of that behavior frequency. P+ can potentially cause so many negative effects…among them apathy, fear, anxiety, and even aggression. It also falls into the reactive rather than proactive approach category. It doesn’t serve to teach the animal what it can do to get its needs met. 

One day I set out to prove my point to my Toastmasters Club with a persuasion speech. My goal: to persuade my audience that using Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive (LIMA) strategies are a more humane and positive way of changing behavior. 

To do that I used two models: one was a club member, Rakel, and the other was our family dog, Sam, who had been taught using a clicker and other marker training. 

I first called Rakel into the room and began the task of teaching her to walk behind a table. Little did she know the paper bag I held contained a spray bottle filled with water. Instead of watching to mark and reinforce her for small behavior steps toward my final goal as I would normally do, I watched for Rakel to make a ‘wrong’ behavior choice. When she did, I yelled, “NO!”, grabbed the bottle, and sprayed her. 

As you can imagine, my response was not received well. It only took a few repetitions before she moved to the back of the room and would not come near me. The opportunity to teach her what I wanted her to learn was completely gone. She had checked out of the lesson. And kept her distance. 

When it was Sam’s turn, I brought him up front, and asked him to do different behaviors; after which, I clicked and gave him a treat. His tail was wagging, he was focused on me, and he had a  very quick response time. 

What a fabulous opportunity for discussion. 

Rakel shared that she moved away because she didn’t want to risk getting squirted or yelled at. The uncertainty made her feel uptight. I hadn’t given her any parameters beforehand of what she could do to avoid the punishment and she didn’t want to take a chance. She just wanted to avoid not only the spray bottle but ME at all costs. Later I asked her if she would be my demo person again for another talk and she emphatically told me, NO! 

I could have set the room up so that Rakel could not have escaped me but I did not.  If I had—as in the case of a dog that is on a leash without an opportunity to move away while skateboards whiz by to teach the dog to stop barking at skateboards—she may (or may not have) ultimately learned to walk behind the table because she had no choice but to participate. This is called learned helplessness. But, at what cost? She would have felt huge anxiety that could have impacted the rest of her day or longer…and definitely her thoughts about being with me.

The differences between the effects of my two teaching strategies were stark. 

I hope that others too can learn from this lesson. Positive punishment creates avoidance and a host of other unpleasant side effects. Sure, you may be able to stop a problem behavior (or may not be able to), but at what cost?

I encourage you instead to focus on what would be a better, acceptable behavior choice and how you can teach that in small steps with tremendous value while managing the environment to try and prevent the practice of the unwanted behavior. 



Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com
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