We sometimes assume that choosing punishment or rewards in training is merely a matter of personal preferences. We use the tools that we deem the most effective, and that we have grown proficient with. If we can teach a dog to sit by applying pressure on his hindquarters, why use treats? If leash corrections can inhibit the dog’s attempts to walk out of position or to jump on a person, why use treats? Treats are often considered a bribe for behaviors that could just as well be taught through a savvy application of an aversive that will discourage those undesirable impulses. Others consider the use of rewards as the preferred way to go and avoid inflicting discomfort, authority or pain to the animal. Why not encourage the animals’ creativity and problem solving in training? Why not teach the dog that sitting is fun and enjoyable instead of something to do or else? The choice of rewards over punishers however, is not just a matter of efficiency, ethics and personal choices. Studies on people and animals have shown that negative experiences have a faster and more lasting impact than positive ones. Why? Because one the brain’s function is to keep us alive and learning how to avoid painful or deadly situations is a matter of survival. As a result, using an aversive has a greater risk of impacting the animal’s emotional experience thus creating problems down the road. Many researchers believe that an important function of emotions is to trigger quick and adaptive behaviors to keep us alive. In humans this phenomenon has been the subject to much attention over the past 40 years. Since we share similar brain structures when it comes to regulating emotions, what we see in humans can help us understand what happens to our pets.
It’s a well-known fact in marital counseling, that to keep our relationship strong, we need a five to one ratio of positive interactions to negative ones (Marano, 2004). It only takes one harsh word, one critical or sarcastic comment to overshadow several declarations of appreciation and love. We tend to hold on to that negative comment, feeling deflated, disrespected and invalidated. Similarly, losing money or friends has a greater impact on us than the opposite (making new friends and winning money). In the same way, even a brief contact at a fancy meal with a cockroach will render the meal inedible. But what is the antidote to this? There is no equivalent. As a Russian saying goes: ‘a spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing to a barrel of tar’ (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). Studies on conditioned taste aversion in both people and other animals showed that it only takes a single trial for the learning to occur and have a lasting effect (Garcia & al., 1974). The bad generally wins over the good. Why such asymmetrical effects? Because it’s much better to overreact to a perceived threat, than to not react to a real one! When it comes to staying alive, we might have just one and only chance to react and to learn from the experience. On the other hand, if we don’t pay much attention to a few berries on the side of the road, we’re probably going to be just fine.
So this negative bias has an adaptive value. For one, negative events are more harmful than positive events are beneficial. There is no positive equivalent to death for instance. So learning which events can lead to a fatal and irreversible consequence is of the highest priority. Negative situations generally also require a quick response and don’t give many options for trial and error, where positive ones can be experienced over and over again. The faster an animal can identify danger, the longer it is likely to live. But in the wild, the brain can be quick to react to a danger, but also quick to go back to a balanced homeostatic state. A wild horse will run for his life when chased by a mountain lion, but will go right back to grazing as soon as the predator is gone. In between the attacks, there may be days of careful watching of the horizon, but no real stressors.
So how does this apply to animal training? Any aversive, in other words, anything that is perceived by the dog (or the horse, cat, ferret, etc) to be unpleasant, scary or painful will have a more lasting effect than anything pleasant. Moreover, since negative stimuli get the animal’s attention, they also take away from their ability to problem solve. How do you try to think through a situation and understand what to do when your emotions are up and your attention is on the aversive? So using leash corrections is not the equivalent to rewarding the dog for walking in position, even if in the end, the dog could learn to walk on a loose leash and in a heel position in both methods. From a neurological perspective, every correction will negatively impact the dog’s psyche, inducing stress and potentially even feelings of helplessness (due to the required number of repetitions of the leash corrections). As we’ve discussed, in a natural situation, animals can quickly go back to a more relaxed state of mind. Our brain has not adapted to continuous stressors. In fact, animals are predisposed to avoid negative experiences, by moving away or going after the source, thus minimizing their long-term exposure. What happens when they have to endure them on a continuous basis? One of the arguments in favor of using an aversive that I’m often given, is that life is full of negative experiences, so adding a punisher here or there will not have that much of an impact on the animal. But it is precisely because life already comes with it’s own set of challenges that we should do what we can to minimize how many negative experiences our companions have to overcome.
How can we help our pet overcome a negative experience? Fortunately, through repeat exposure to positive experiences, new neural connections can gradually develop over time. That’s how animals learn. But it takes many more positive experiences to replace one negative one and the more traumatizing the event, the longer it will take. This is also why using an aversive can be risky. Depending on the level of sensitivity of the animal, but also on what associations the brain has developed (e.g.: the person administering the punishment and the negative experience), we might end up with more work than benefits. Undoing the effects of negative experiences takes time and commitment. Without going into any ethical considerations, from a practical standpoint, it’s a lot easier and more efficient to favor positive associations over the negative ones.
This ‘negativity bias’ is also one of the reasons why it’s so important to keep the animal under threshold when working on fear and reactivity issues (for more on this subject, you can read the post “Reactivity and Aggression in dogs – Managing and Treating“). If every negative experience has more impact on the brain than many positive ones, any time the dog is scared and/or reactive, we have just made things worse. The neural connections in the brain are strengthened. It will take even more repetitions of positive exposures to the scary stimuli to overcome the fear.
With the animal brain wired to give particular attention to negative experiences, it is essential to understand how much this phenomenon impacts our pet’s behavior. Helping them feel safe, develop coping skills and positive associations with their environment, is a prerequisite to their wellbeing. They will endure discomfort, fear and pain no matter how careful we are. Although we don’t need to become helicopter guardians, using an aversive, should always be of last resort when working with animals and more generally, when relating to others. For more information on the subject, Rick Hanson Ph.D., neurologist and psychologist gives an insightful presentation on the subject in the video below.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.