Dog Training: Signals, Cues, Commands, Obedience and Punishment

Kelly Gorman Dunbar and Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe on October 17, 2011.

This is the podcast where Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed me for Animal Cafe.

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Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers

An Australian Shepherd doing agility at the Ro...

Do you use signals or commands to communicate with your dog? (Image via Wikipedia)

Commands or signals, corrections or punishers, praise or reinforcers—does it matter what we call them?

If you think it doesn’t matter, there’s no need to read any further. If you think it does matter, please continue reading because I’d like to help you. I noticed some inconsistencies in contemporary dog training terminology  and will proceed to argue that they need correcting.  Trainers use too many terms that either are badly defined, not defined at all or already exist and mean something else.

Why is it important to agree on one single terminology? Because only then can we have a meaningful discussion and avoid falling out with people with whom we might otherwise like to cooperate.

For example, the majority of “positive” dog trainers have no problems using the word command and yet a command means “an authoritative direction or instruction to do something,” or “a line of code written as part of a computer program.” To command means “to exercise authoritative control or power over.” The word has connotations of the military, the police and of authority in general. Of course, we may use the word command but it beats me why we ban the terms dominance (without defining it properly) and punisher (whilst disregarding the correct, technical definition of the term) and use command with no concern whatsoever.

Personally, I have a problem with the use of command in dog training for several reasons. A command implies the obligation to execute a behavior in a very precise way. We give computers commands to execute actions in exactly the same way every single time, no variations allowed (that’s what we want from our computers). Army officers issue commands they want obeyed with no questions asked and disobedience is severely punished.

Is this what we want from our dogs? No, it is not. We want them to perform a behavior within a particular class of behaviors where variations are both inevitable and acceptable. There are many ways to sit correctly, but not many ways to “copy” or “paste”. The authoritarian aspect also bothers me; it implies subjugation. I don’t want my dog so much to obey me as to understand what I want him to do. The essence of communication is to convey information, not to enforce it. When we communicate, we use signals, and signals are understood, not obeyed and not commanded. I can’t say “I command you to understand.” A command is a signal before becoming a command, only we don’t need to issue commands to our dogs if we’ve done our job properly.

Signal seems to me undoubtedly the right term and has much better connotations than command. Your dog is not a computer, nor a soldier (PS—I have nothing against computers nor soldiers).

The same goes for the term punisher. You’ll find “positive” trainers using the word command without blinking, but demonizing you if you dare as much as whisper the word punisher, which doesn’t make any sense at all to me. If we are sensitive about the connotations of one term, it seems that we would also be sensitive about those of the other. Whilst blithely employing the word command, some trainers substitute punisher with correction, which doesn’t make any difference, it still means the same and is interchangeable with punisher in some senses.

Then, there is praisePraise means “an expression of approval and commendation,” “applaud,” “pay tribute to,” “compliment.” It is true that praise can influence learning in humans, but I doubt it very much that it has any value in animal training. Praise and reinforcer are two different things. We use reinforcers in dog training, not praise. “Positive” animal training claims to be a more humane way of training animals (meaning showing compassion or benevolence), to be more scientific than the “old-fashioned” training, and to know all about “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning.” If this is true, why don’t we show it and educate people accordingly? Why don’t we use the proper scientific terms?

Some claim that the right scientific terms are too difficult. I fail to see what’s more difficult in reinforcer than in reward, in signal than in command, but even if it were true, this appears to me to be one of the situations where the end justifies the means. It would be a small price to pay in order to gain more clarity and avoid misunderstandings. Using technical terms instead of everyday words would also help people fully understand and use the various learning tools correctly. Sometimes, in trying to simplify things, we miss the point completely. Most dog owners don’t know that praise in dog training means “everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior when presented simultaneously or immediately after the behavior takes place” (= reinforcer). Dog owners are not more stupid than dog trainers and if the latter can learn it, so can the former. It’s up to us to motivate them. We were all dog owners before we became dog trainers. Did we like condescending dog trainers back then?

As far as I can see, we only have two options: (1) to claim that it doesn’t matter what we call things, in which case nobody should be labelled for using terms such as punisher, dominance, etc., and we can all be “positive” nevertheless; (2) to use, teach, encourage and propagate the use of correct, well-defined terms, starting with ourselves, in order to be consistent with ideology and methodology.

Personally, I am not worried by the terms you use and I will not label you solely on your choice of words. The only concern I have is that (unless I know you) when you say command I’m not so sure you know about the intricacies of signals, and when you say praise I’m not certain that you fully appreciate the function of reinforcers (and punishers). I understand that you don’t like the word punisher because you are a good person, but I’m not sure that this is the right way to manifest it. Changing a term doesn’t change an attitude. Sometimes, quite on the contrary, if you used the word punisher, you’d have an opportunity and a reason to emphasize that it has nothing to do with violence and abuse.

On the other side, I do have worries that we label good, humane, “positive” dog trainers otherwise because of their correct use of the scientific terms; and that we label good, humane, “old-fashioned” trainers abusive due to their ignorance of the terminology that is fashionable nowadays. Before you even think of labeling me on the basis of my comments here, I would like to remind you that my first book on dog training, published in 1984 and entitled “The Dog, Our Friend—Psychology rather than Power,” was a revolution in dog training at the time; it was the first book (as far as I know) to describe exactly how to teach a dog sit, stand, down, come, heel, jump, slalom, treat-on-the-nose, retrieve, etc., without the use of any force at all. I showed even pictures of the clicker (except that we used a whistle) and of the precursor of these so fashionable toys that you fill with treats to stimulate the dog. Since then, many have followed in the same spirit: respect for the dog as a species and as an individual.

The bottom-line is that we should define terminology and implement it consistently. As it stands now, I’m afraid we’ll lose many good people for our cause of “a better world for dogs and dog owners” because of fashionable trends and pettiness.

Think about it.

Keep smiling,

R-