I tend to think of myself as firmly within the camp of Positive Reinforcement trainers. I teach new skills using positive reinforcement (rewarding the dog for the behavior I like). I deal with unwanted behavior by teaching an alternate skill, managing the dog’s environment so the unwanted behavior is no longer reinforcing, and using negative punishment (taking away something the dog likes when the dog does something I dislike, for example giving the dog a time-out or turning my back on her and ignoring her for a few seconds during a training session). I don’t believe it is necessary, or for that matter even helpful, to use techniques that cause pain, fear, or intimidation in the name of training.
That said, there are a very few times in Layla’s life when I have resorted to using Positive Punishment. Positive punishment is the technical term for what most people think of as just plain punishment: applying something the dog dislikes when the dog does something you dislike, in order to make the dog less likely to repeat the offensive behavior.
This isn’t something I do lightly, and I always do a lot of soul-searching before applying any aversives. Is this skill really necessary for my dog to know for her own health or safety (or the health/safety of others)? Am I taking advantage of any/all management techniques to prevent the offensive behavior? Have I trained an alternate skill to a high level of proficiency, so that the dog really knows what I’m expecting of her? Is the behavior self-reinforcing and unable to be Premacked? Will the aversive work within three applications or less? If the answer to all of the above is not a resounding “yes!” then I am not in any position to use an aversive.
I’m writing about this topic tonight because I’m at the point where I will be using positive punishment to eliminate an unwanted behavior. In this case, I want to get rid of Layla’s yearly indulgence in frozen ‘poopsicles,’ which I found her blissfully snacking on in the yard tonight.
Poop eating, or coprophagia to use the technical term, is a very contagious behavior. Layla learned to eat poop from a foster puppy, a little four-month-old Cattle Dog we had with us for about a month. The Cattle Dog learned to eat poop from Abe, a Pit Bull he lived with at the shelter during the day. Abe also taught every single other dog at the shelter this lovely habit. All it took was for a dog to see another dog snacking on their poop, and they would pick up the habit. This is one reason why Duke never goes outside at the same time as Layla. No poop eating for Duke!
In Layla’s case, she only eats frozen poop. She also only eats poop from kibble-fed dogs, probably because there are still all sorts of undigested goodies in it. There are no fillers or preservatives in a raw food diet, hence nothing interesting coming out the other end! The problem with this is that because of Layla’s horrible allergies, she has an allergic reaction to any poop she eats, just as she would to eating a piece of bread or a chicken breast. Her ears get infected, her skin gets itchy, red, and flaky, and she leaks urine for a couple days. If she’s eaten enough to really bother her, she may lose patches of fur and she will almost certainly become very crabby and short-tempered.
There are all sorts of remedies for coprophagia. Probably one of the easiest is to add something to the dog’s diet to make the stuff coming out the other end taste bad. One would think this wouldn’t be necessary (since one would think poop already tastes bad), but for many dogs this simple measure cures coprophagia. Bromelain is one popular remedy, and can be bought either as a health food supplement in capsules or fed by giving fresh pineapple, which is high in bromelain. If that doesn’t work, various powder remedies on the market such as S.E.P. (short for Stop Eating Poop), Forbid, or Deter can be purchased either at pet stores or from the vet. In Layla’s case, all of these remedies worked to a slight amount, however they weren’t 100% effective, and even a small bit of poop would cause an allergic reaction.
On to training and management. It was the matter of a couple days to get Layla happy and comfortable wearing a basket muzzle. Short, highly reinforcing training sessions and a low-pressure approach in which she could always get the muzzle off at first if she felt uncomfortable worked quickly and effectively. She now happily pushes her nose into the ‘treat basket’ to have it put on, and while she will paw at it when it is on for long periods she mostly just ignores it. Having her wear a basket muzzle outside slowed her poop eating down significantly. It’s certainly still possible for a dog to eat poop with a basket muzzle, but if the poop is frozen it does take a bit of time to smoosh through the holes of the muzzle enough so that she can eat it.
While accustoming her to the basket muzzle, I also spent several days reviewing the ‘leave it’ command with Layla. We practiced Leave It with treats on the edge of the table, treats on the floor, treats on her paws while she held a down-stay, and treats raining down around her head while she sat still. We also practiced Leave It with toys, both stationary and moving. Then I started doing ‘cold trials’ of Leave It. This included putting small piles of treats on the ground outside where we would go past them on our walk and using a nifty trick I learned from Sandy where a whole hot dog or other goody is placed in a bird suet feeder so that the dog can smell it but can’t immediately eat it if she ignores the ‘leave it’ command (a clever dog can still get the hot dog out, but it will give you a couple seconds to intervene).
So, at this point Layla was solid with Leave It and comfortable wearing her muzzle. We were ready for action! I didn’t clean up the yard for a couple days so there were plenty of tempting piles of Duke poop. Layla is only interested in frozen kibble-byproduct poop when there’s snow on the ground (no snow, no poop eating: apparently she needs the right atmosphere), so conditions were perfect. I spent several days going outside with her, cueing her to ‘leave it’ if she sniffed a pile of poop and rewarding her with clicks and treats (squeezy cheese, so that she could eat through the holes in her muzzle) for complying. She was doing well. Next, I faded my presence but continued to cue the Leave Its if I felt it was necessary. I stood at the top of the stairs in the backyard, and after I clicked she could run up to get her treat. I jackpotted uncued Leave Its.
After about a week of this, she was pretty good about leaving Duke poop alone, probably about 95% successful. Unfortunately for her, that little 5% margin of error was causing some pretty bad allergic reactions. She was getting benadryl 3-4 days a week to alleviate some of her allergy symptoms. At this point, I introduced the aversive.
Layla is quite sensitive to loud noises, so I decided to use an air horn. I wanted something that would be very startling to her, but that wouldn’t be so distressing that she would become afraid of being in the backyard. Herein lies the problem with using punishment. It’s such a balancing act: you need something that will be aversive enough to stop the behavior without being so aversive that it will stop all behavior (cause the dog to shut down) or be associated with the wrong thing (fallout). It needs to be clear to the dog which action caused the aversive, but the aversive should not be associated with you at all. It should seem to come out of nowhere. Having seen Layla’s reaction to the noise of the tornado sirens in our neighborhood or the emergency alert tone on the tv/radio, I settled on the air horn as a similar sound volume and intensity.
The air horn is loud but is very short-lasting and was easy to time precisely. At this point I continued to click and treat for leaving piles of Duke poop. However, if she actually began to eat a pile, I would sound the air horn briefly. She would jump and spit out the poop in her shock. Here’s the other important thing about aversives: timing is so important! I didn’t want to punish her for simply moving towards the poop, as she could have been innocently sniffing. I didn’t want to punish sniffing, because she needs to sniff before finding an appropriate place to go to the bathroom. There’s so much opportunity for fallout. This is another one of the reasons why positive reinforcement training is really so much better.
The aversive worked. The first winter I used this technique, it took two horn blasts to completely stop her poop eating behavior for the entire winter. Last winter, the behavior resurfaced. It only took one blast to stop it. This winter it has resurfaced again, and I will do the same thing as always (clicker, treats, and horn: reward appropriate behavior, punish dangerous behavior).
Ideally, I would like to have the behavior completely eliminated the first time the aversive was used, with no refreshers necessary. However, I understand that behaviors can be forgotten if they’re not practiced. Since we don’t have snow on the ground or frozen poopsicles around most months of the year (and I would have to move South if we did!), this behavior isn’t practiced. I learned to run fecal samples to diagnose intestinal parasites and protozoa when I was in school to become a vet tech. I couldn’t run a fecal today if my life depended on it. Since I haven’t done one or seen it done for years, I’ve simply forgotten the behavior. The same thing can happen to dogs, so I don’t sweat it if they forget something they haven’t practiced for a long time. We just review. Who knows, maybe this year I won’t even need the air horn at all! I’m looking forward to the day when a simple click-treat for leaving piles of poop is all the reminder she needs (“oh yeah, that stuff is no good to eat”).
So, I’m curious. Do you use any positive punishment in your training routine? What are your criteria for doing so, and which behaviors have you used it with? Coprophagia is one of only two behaviors I have ever purposefully punished Layla for in her life. (The other was nipping Duke’s heels when they were both running off-leash, which was very self reinforcing for her as she could control his movement but was a safety issue due to Duke’s severe hip dysplasia). I always feel guilty having to resort to punishment, as I know a more skilled trainer would not need to. After all, if a killer whale can be clicker-trained to pee in a cup and a cockatoo can be trained to hold still for a painful injection, anything is possible in dog training!