Tag Archives: Balanced Training

Being Wrong is Right

Being Wrong Is Right

By Angelica Steinker, M.Ed., PDBC, CAP2


Turns out that humans have a huge problem– we love to be right. The problem is that this is dangerous and actually causes serious tragedies and even death, according to Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error author Kathryn Schulz. Schulz explains how planes crash as a result of a pilot refusing to admit error. And as Schulz delves into the topic you can’t really blame the pilot, but rather punishment. It seems that as tiny kids we are already conditioned to be right.That if you are right you are good and if you are wrong you are bad. Of course this is really not helpful as life is comprised of a whole bunch of grey areas, situational dilemmas and most importantly of humans who desperately long never to be wrong.

So I need to confess, I have been and am wrong. I was wrong for using choke chains and prong collars on my first dogs, I was wrong when I alpha rolled my terrier and inadvertently caused even more problems. I was wrong when I sprayed fluid in my dogs face and when shook shake cans. Frankly when I saw the door to clicker training I jumped through it, I wanted out. I was happy to be wrong, because using aversives did not feel right. But being wrong isn’t always that simple.


Being wrong is not easy. I don’t know why but I feel attracted to being wrong, perhaps it’s the rebel in me, but I see that others struggle and suffer when being even potentially wrong. I don’t relate. Maybe it was my childhood conditioning that prompted a strong opposition reflex. For most of us, years of cultural conditioning have programed us to avoid being different, to go with the crowd and to avoid conflict. Not too long ago conflict was so dangerous that even just triggering one person could cost you your life. The conflict avoiding programming that resulted persists even though the risk involved today for most of us is minimal, but the fear of being wrong persists.

When I am honest I realize there have been things I have dreaded being wrong about. I did not want to be wrong about my marriage failing years ago. I did not want to be wrong about my terriers being really hard to train for agility. I wanted to do agility and so it was really hard to accept that they really did not want to do agility. I was wrapped up in my ego, my want, my joy, my outcome and not considering the truth that one of my terriers had monumental stress issues that made living as a pet difficult and consistently performing in agility nearly impossible. My terrier and I did the impossible we got an Agility Excellent title in AKC and then I retired him. I agonized about retiring him and then noticed that he was unconcerned, relieved to not be doing agility anymore. 

Being wrong is not easy.

It had been my ego that drove me to do it. I had set goals, I had wanted and not listened to what my dog was saying: hey this competition stuff is not for me. I enjoy doing agility in the back yard and at friend’s places but this competition stuff is too much. I had lacked awareness. I had lacked the ability to see the severity his stress so I blindly made decisions. I was wrong. But there were lucky side effects to my bad decision. Doing agility had empowered my scared terrier to become a more confident dog. 


Empowerment training is really just good training. If you follow science along it’s trail of evidence you will find empowerment training. Efficacy, how well a training method works, is not enough; we need to ensure that dogs learn via methods that empower them. James O’Heare has written an outstanding book on Empowerment training which outlines the process of good training. Exploring the book you will find that the road to good training is not an easy one, but is ultimately rewarding to both the learner and the teacher. Empowerment training does not mean that your dog is going to take over your house and that you will be making out your mortgage check to her, it means that your dog will enjoy the learning process. The ultimate compliment to any teacher, an enamored student!

However my being wrong about my first agility dog’s desire to do agility ended up being very disempowering to me. The instructors I was choosing to train with were motivated by being in control. I was told that I should use more deprivation, that my dog’s problems were the result of my bad training. I internalized that I was a horrible trainer but could not accept the concept of needing to deprive my dogs in order for them to play a game with me. I realized that for me control was not going to be motivating. To me the feeling of unity when playing with my dog was what really mattered. Illogically I slipped into learned helplessness. But ultimately what I learned was that I had been wrong. Selecting trainers based on fame and their own personal success was not working for me.I learned that I had to be true to my values and find trainers who were aligned with those values. I committed to learning everything that I could about behavior by enrolling in a trade school and reading every book on behavior I could get my hands on. I became empowered. I started feeling pretty good about myself, I started to think that behavior was everything, that I could solve all dog training challenges. That there wasn’t a challenge I could not meet. I was ranked myself up high and enjoyed being in charge. Then it happened again. 

Dominance Paradigm

I learned I was wrong about dominance. When I first became a professional trainer I told clients they had to do a variety of things to be dominant over their dogs. Turns out two beings of the same species can’t form a dominance hierarchy and that much of the original wolf research was flawed, so my neat hierarchy tumbled. While I did not have the advantage of Barry Eaton’s excellent summary of the scientific findings in Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction? It was the far more technical text by James O’Heare in Dominance Theory and Dogs that prompted my submission. O’Heare states that humans are the ones obsessed with rank and power and that the most likely explanation of our desire for control over others is our own need for dominance. A dominance that we have easily obtained, historically speaking; it hit me like a blow to the gut. The neat system I had in place that explained everything, bad behavior is dominant, good behavior is submissive –was wrong. Suddenly everything was infinitely more complex and I had to reorganize my entire way of thinking.

I no longer had dominance to blame.

My terrier’s stubbornness became my challenge to be unpredictable and their ability to think around me. I no longer had dominance to blame and again I noticed feeling empowered. Being wrong was becoming even more reinforcing. I began asking why is anyone training anything with force? What is it about force that is reinforcing?

Functional Analysis of Force

I analyze everything, all the time. Maybe it is from parenting too many terriers and border collies but I can’t stop the obsessions; thinking about behavior. Learning that behavior is happening all the time I realized this included not just the dog but also the humans. While I thought I was training my dogs, they were also training me, but on an even deeper level the tools I used for training were also having an effect on me. So like layers of an onion, I started peeling. If I used a remote citronella collar to punish a dog for barking the fact that my button pressing stopped the barking was having an effect on me. 

Behaviorally I was being reinforced for punishing my dog. This was something that I found aberrant. Fundamentally it struck me that enjoying punishing another being was controlling and possibly sadistic. A road, I was not going to be traveling on. Yet I remembered training horses and feeling an awesome sense of power being able to control such a big animal. But power over another being was not going to be my reinforcer instead I intentionally chose being a team with my dog. Whether heeling, running an agility course, or throwing a disc I began to build reinforcement history with sharing joy and fun with my dogs. Sharing games and play increased my empathy for all dogs. We were having so much fun, feeling such powerful connection and exchanging communication, I began to feel a burning desire for all dogs and humans to share their time like this. Why didn’t everyone want to be a team with their dog?


Enter empathy, our most affiliative and important emotion. Empathy isn’t easy and it is frequently confused with sympathy, but nothing can be more powerful than empathy. It can literally move mountains when it comes to conflict. When beings feel empathized with, powerful bonds are forged. Marshall Rosenburg travels the world bringing his Non-Violent Communication to seemingly insurmountable conflict. Of course empathy isn’t a new idea, entire cultures are built on it, i.e. Buddhism. 

I started empathizing with dogs, and feeling impatient with people, this caused a lot of problems. Humans don’t always like it when you take the side of the dog. Humans can get defensive when they feel judged and view your training advice as a demand. I was wrong to empathize with the dog. The answer was empathizing with the dog and the human. Both needed empathy to be able to be heard, to be able to listen and to learn.

Just a Word

Dog trainers are taught to give commands to dogs, and that dogs follow these commands. We are expected to create beings that flawlessly follow the wishes of their masters. One of my formerly favorite words: dominance –had already partially opened my eyes to the potential damage of labeling, but now I was seeing even deeper problems. The word “command” was a powerful label. It implies needing control over others, addiction to power and dominance – placing yourself above, all things I had learned to leave behind. The Stanford prison experiment randomly labeled normal college students as prisoners and guards, within a few days the experiment had to be stopped because the guards were seriously abusing the prisoners. However the Stanford prison experiment was only the tip of the iceberg the world over labeling had caused intense and horrifying problems. The power of a word demonstrated, I began to wonder what happens when people label a dog? What happens when I label a client? What happens when I teach people to give their dogs commands? The words we choose matter, just as much as I had to leave that choke chain and prong collar behind I now needed to learn to choose my words much more carefully. Just using one word, could be wrong, and possibly life-ending for a dog. 

Researching Non-Violent Communication, I stumbled across an important word: request. The word request is extremely powerful and an antithesis to the word demand. Both words are so powerful that you don’t actually have to use them to effect communication. It is in your tone, your non-verbal communication that makes the difference. Demands cause beings become resistant. Opposition reflex is activated. Defensive and even aggressive behaviors can be triggered, not helpful for work with humans or dogs. But magically by just changing one word—and the attitude that goes with it, demand becomes a request. The fascinating thing is that when we request, most beings that you have a reinforcement history with, comply and they usually comply immediately. 

By just changing one word, “demand” becomes “request.”

So I request that trainers start requesting. I request that we coach our clients to use requests rather than demands when communicating with dogs. I request that we lay aside the tools of demand: choke, prongs and shock and that we enter the world of compliance with just one word. 

Love Being Wrong

Being wrong is right. Being wrong allows for growth and learning. I challenge all of us trainers to embrace being wrong. To make a commitment to openness and embracing a dog and client centered approach. To side with compassion, kindness and let all your requests show your love. Ask what am I wrong about? And to embrace what you learn. 

Pitfalls of Punishment

Author’s Note:

Positive punishment is when you add something unpleasant when an undesirable behavior is displayed to discourage that behavior.

Negative punishment
is when you take away something pleasant when an undesirable behavior is displayed to discourage that behavior.

Positive reinforcement
is the addition of something pleasant when a desired behavior is displayed to encourage that behavior.

Negative reinforcement
is the removal of something unpleasant when the desired behavior is displayed to encourage that behavior.


Positive punishment:
Spanking a child when they talk back

Negative Punishment:
Getting your rights taken away after committing a crime

Positive Reinforcement:
Getting a raise when you perform well

Negative Reinforcement:
Annoying dinging in car stops when you put on your seat belt

Positive punishment is most easily associated with the punisher. It is the use of positive punishment and the deliberate application of negative reinforcement that needs to be avoided. Negative punishment causes less “fall out”. (Sidman, Murray, Coercion and Its Fallout).

Punishment is Familiar

As people and trainers we tend to gravitate toward what we find familiar

The subject of punishment is a sensitive topic because we have all experienced being punished and we have all punished. Due to our knowledge that punishment is unpleasant it is uncomfortable to think about exactly how we use punishment.

However, punishment is familiar and as people and trainers we tend to gravitate toward what we find familiar as this is much easier than coming up with new ideas.

Punishment Begets Punishment

Punishment is popular – in our society we are surrounded by it. Managers use punishment to control employees, teachers use it to discourage misbehavior in the classroom; this popularity of punishment makes it seem like using punishment is acceptable.

The thirst for punishment seems to be driven by people’s desire to control, ironic considering people actually control very little. The very fact that all of us are almost always at a loss of control seems to be the driving force behind the need for control. The best dog trainers seek perfection, and it is this desire for perfection that can cause a desire to totally control their dogs. On the surface this concept of “total control of the dog” sounds ideal, the trainer gets total obedience and the dog gets rewards. However, invariably the dog will make errors. These errors clash with the concept of total control and can pave a road to the use of punishment.

The thirst for punishment seems to be driven by people’s desire to control

We are conditioned to notice errors – when exceptional behavior goes unnoticed, we cannot reinforce it.

While each individual is responsible for how they choose to train their dog, society has primed us to choose punishment. As young children the conditioning begins in school when errors are marked in red. We are conditioned to have laser-error-vision which is programmed to see errors rather than exceptional behavior. When exceptional behavior goes unnoticed or is taken for granted the opportunity to reinforce it has passed.

Another dynamic intertwined with punishment is blame. Blaming is fun because it means that somebody else is at fault so someone else will suffer for the error. First you blame, then you punish.

But I was Punished

While we were growing up we all experienced punishment. This leads to pro-punishment thoughts such as, “but I was punished and I turned out okay”. People do not turn out okay because of punishment – this is a gross oversimplification of a highly complex process. People turn out okay because they are taught values that are in alignment with most of society’s values. People turn out okay because they choose to behave in a decent way.


Punishing is Self-Reinforcing

When a trainer uses punishment it is reinforcing to the trainer in several ways:

  • Punishment elicits strong responses from dogs so the effect seems powerful to the punisher.
  • Anyone watching is likely to be impressed by the dramatic reactions of the dog which is reinforcing to the punisher.
  • Trainer has made the decision to punish, this is empowering and reinforcing to the trainer.
  • If the trainer is feeling frustrated the punishment will have a cathartic effect. The act of punishment is a release of the frustrated feelings and therewith reinforcing to the trainer.
  • It does not require any creative thought or problem solving. It is easier for the trainer to use punishment, than using reinforcement.

In addition, punishment is frequently referred to as “the only thing that works.” The reason punishment is the “only thing that works” is because the trainer has not chosen to put forth the extra effort required to find the proper reinforcement that would be effective for that particular dog. In other words, punishment-training techniques have been practiced more than reinforcement techniques, so trainers are more likely to have better punishment skills than reinforcement skills.

All this ensures that trainers using punishment will never be sure whether they are using it because it truly was the last resort or because they have a history of being reinforced for using punishment. (Murray Sidman, Coercion and its Fallout)

Arguments for Punishment

Traditional trainers, trainers who use choke collars and leash corrections, insist that correction-based training is both faster and more effective. However, both punishment and reinforcement require appropriate timing to be effective. Experienced trainers know what type of punishment will invoke the best results. Consequently, a lot of trainers lack the knowledge of how to creatively use reinforcement. This is one reason why some

trainers find correction-based training to be quicker. For them it is quicker because they choose not to take the time to learn the reinforcement techniques that would lead to the same results.

Punishment is only quicker because trainers choose not to take the time to learn how to use reinforcement techniques effectively.

Both corrections and reinforcement require appropriate timing. A poorly timed leash correction will be ineffective. Poorly timed reinforcement will also confuse the dog the dog. The difference in outcome between these two training techniques is that the incorrectly rewarded dog is less likely to quit working, react stressed, or develop a poor attitude, as the improperly corrected dog may.

Punishment Causes Countercontrol

Nothing is free – the use of punishment comes with a price. Extreme punishment causes seemingly insane behavior. Several years ago there was a shocking story of a circus elephant that “went mad” and attacked its handler and trampled spectators before it was shot to death on the street. In a follow up story, it was announced that the elephant’s trainer had used cruel training techniques. Many examples of the resulting dogs with horrid behaviors caused by excessive punishment can be witnessed at any local animal shelter.

Punished animals will tolerate the punishment to a point. This point is known as the punishment threshold. When the threshold is crossed the animal swings into countercontrol. Countercontrol is usually aggression. People then control this countercontrol with the ultimate punishment of killing the animal. When it comes to control, nothing works better than killing. (Murray Sidman, Coercion and its Fallout)

The bottom line is that punishment erodes your bond with your dog. Likewise positive reinforcement strengthens that bond. It is important not to confuse the submissive licking and

Punishment erodes your bond with your dog while positive reinforcement strengthens that bond

groveling of a punished dog with bonding. A physically or verbally corrected dog will frequently lick the face of the person who just punished them. This is not bonding. The dog does this to signal submission – they lick you to show you that they are not a threat to encourage you to stop harming them. 

Dogs that are shocked will develop a tolerance to shock so the trainer will increase the shock and hurt the dog more

Both punishment and reinforcement are subject to desensitization. This means that when a trainer resorts to the use of a shock collar, if that collar is used to administer a great deal of shocks the shocks will need to become stronger in order to be effective. Dogs that are shocked will develop a tolerance for being shocked. The opposite can also occur, this means that the shocked dog sensitizes to the shocks and actually reacts stronger to the punishment. This sensitizing response can trigger panic. (Pamela Reid, Excel-Erated Learning)

The fact that dogs can desensitize to the use of a shock collar can then lead to abuse. The same process of desensitization can occur with other forms of punishment. A swat becomes a slap, a slap becomes a smack, a smack becomes a kick, and so on.


Reinforcement is subject to the same dynamic of desensitization. If a trainer always gives the dog, the same treat in the same way the treat will become less effective. This is one reason that if a trainer chooses to train with food the dog should be hungry during training times and the food should be varied. (Karen Pryor, Don’t Shoot the Dog)

Punishment Means the Dog is at Fault

Human logic dictates that fair punishment is the result of mistakes on the dog’s part. However, the dog’s mistake could be caused by many other factors, some of these are:

  • Learning has not generalized – what you have taught them is not understood in various contexts
  • Cue was not sufficiently proofed – something else is more interesting to the dog
  • Distraction was too overwhelming to the dog. Dog was set up for failure.
  • Dog does not feel well.
  • Dog is confused.
  • Dog has misunderstood.
  • Dog forgot.
  • Training is poor.
  • Dog was not paying attention – trainer needs to work on attention.
The reality is that the mistakes are either training or handling related. (Sheila Booth, Purely Positive). If the trainer is at fault, the trainer can easily make the changes required. The trainer changes his behavior rather than blames the dog. The trainer is in control. This process also assumes that the dog is intelligent enough to learn and intelligent enough to misunderstand or become confused. It is clear that the dog’s errors are the trainer’s responsibility.

Mistakes are training or handling related, not the dog’s fault

Is Punishment Stronger than Reinforcement?

Punishment elicits dramatic results. A dog that is shocked is highly motivated by the pain she has received to avoid further shocking. A dog that is beaten for messing in the house will go to extreme measures, such as eating her stool, to avoid future beatings. All this evidence suggests that punishment is simply stronger than reinforcement.

punishment will never strengthen a dog’s bond with his owner

However, punishment will never strengthen a dog’s bond with his owner. It is that bond that is proof that Reinforcement is stronger than Punishment.

Creativity and out-thinking your dog are more work than a quick pop. If more trainers chose to dream up doggie-reinforcement-fantasies all dogs and trainers would benefit. Dogs are amoral; we are not. Who has the moral obligation to try to do better?  


Coercion and its Fallout by Murray Sidman.
Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor.
So Your Dog is Not Lassie by Betty Fisher and Suzanne Delzio.
Behavior Problems in Dogs by William Campbell.
Train Your Dog the Lazy Way by Andrea Arden.
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson.
Dogs are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson.
The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts
Purely Positive by Sheila Booth.
Excel-Erated Learning: How dogs learn and how best to teach them by Pamela J. Reid.
“Of Hostages and Relationships” by Suzanne Clothier, www.flyingdogpress.com.
“The shocking truth about shock collars” Animal Behavior site www.apbc.org.uk/article2.htm.
*A version of this article was published in APDT Chronicle of The Dog