Life With Yuna -
4 Month Update: Reinforcing Positive Reinforcement
I was under the incorrect assumption that the louder I yell and the harder I threw the lead on the floor, the more effectively I would communicate to Yuna that this behavior was bad.
December 31st, 2018
Early on in December, I wondered whether or not I may have “broken” Yuna a little.
This monthly update, I wanted to do something a little different. The past three months, I’ve been focusing on three aspects that stood out each month.
This month, I’ll just focus on one. One big one. Throughout the way, I’ve got some real honest stories to share.
Positive Reinforcement & Negative Reinforcement
I’ve never had a kid, but I’ve heard more than once that having a dog is like having a two year old.
Both respond to positive and negative rewards very similarly. At the very core, you positively reinforce good behaviors, and negatively reinforce bad ones. Eventually, the dog will will learn to associate various behaviors with their respective rewards or consequences.
Positive reinforcement has cemented its place in dog training. It allows the owner and dog to strengthen their bond and improve communication.
But what I’ve been wondering this month is the role of negative reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement seems to be much more controversial than its positive counterpart. And no, I’m not talking about those physical negative reinforcements, which I don’t think you should EVER do to your dog (such as hitting your dog, or making your dog wear a shock collar).
I’m talking about yelling at your dog when they misbehave. It seems common out there. Many seem to do it, while others denounce this practice completely, choosing to use only positive reinforcement.
Most people that I’ve interacted with so far do not see much wrong with yelling at your dog when necessary—after all, if you want to correct something in your dog, they need some form of punishment for unwanted behaviors.
Negative Reinforcement and Yuna
I do yell at Yuna. By far the most common reason for me yelling at her is leash pulling (I would say that in every other aspect, she is super well-behaved). Sometimes, she is too overexcited and will walk way ahead of me during our strolls. Or she gets very enthusiastic when she sees another dog and will use every ounce of her fiber to try and inch closer to them.
Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, since it is just such a Yuna thing to do this. She is just so friendly.
However, many owners are just looking to walk with their dog without interruptions. I think you can usually tell by reading their body language and leash control cues. I want to respect that.
I also have just been trying to train Yuna to walk mostly leash tension free, which has been improving, but still a struggle.
So occasionally, on a high-stress and low-patience day, I will let my temper fly.
She responds with this super despondent face, which 99.9% of the time would have me completely beat (sad Lab face is freaking adorable and Yuna nails it). But while my temper is flaring, I’m able to see right through it.
If the situation is bad enough, I’ll throw the handle of the lead on the floor. This really frightens her. She usually cowers into a lay and her eyes shudder, afraid to look at me.
And with each repeated offense, I threw the lead down more forcefully each time. “It’s been so long. How could she still not understand what I’m trying to communicate to her?” I frustratedly think, teeming with anger.
It takes me a couple deep breaths to regain my composure. Yuna continues her lay until I motion to resume the walk.
Sometimes when we get home, after I remove her harness, she’ll sprint to a corner of the room and just cower there. Sometimes she’ll run into my roommate’s room and hang out there for a while, looking dejected.
It usually takes just ten to fifteen minutes for her to forget. I’ll usually approach her with apologies and pets. Once she knows everything’s okay again she’ll return to her normal self.
Personal Reflection – Is Negative Reinforcement Working?
It was pretty hard to type the previous section. I’m aware that some might criticize me for scaring Yuna. A dog should feel safe and secure with her owner, never frightened or threatened.
I agree. Looking back, I feel pretty disgusted for doing this to Yuna, especially as I mentioned before that this behavior is so in line with her personality (quite frankly, so in line with dogs in general).
To clarify, I don’t feel disgusted for employing negative reinforcement on Yuna’s bad behaviors. In situations where you want to curb bad behavior, I do think some form of punishment is necessary.
But I was under the incorrect assumption that the louder I yell and the harder I threw the lead on the floor, the more effectively I would communicate to Yuna that this behavior was bad.
It absolutely does not work this way.
When I stop and think about it, did yelling at Yuna louder stop her from pulling on the leash? I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve yelled at her, yet the behavior persists. Yelling louder did not help.
Even worse, what was I going to achieve by scaring her with throwing the leash on the floor? It damaged our relationship more than anything.
The more I ponder, the more I conclude that continuing to use harsher forms of negative reinforcement only does more harm long-term than good.
Now, I cannot say that this is true for all dogs. I can only say that this is true for Yuna.
I’ve once heard a story where a dog once misbehaved and the owner decided to pick him up, and drop him from about five feet to scare him. The storyteller has it that the dog never misbehaved again.
I would never do that to Yuna, but even if I did, I’m already convinced such a tactic would never work on her. And I would not enjoy the damage it would permanently do to our bond.
“Breaking” Yuna – Nearly Mute
In the first paragraph of this post, I said I often wondered whether my negative reinforcement has “broken” Yuna a little.
She’s already kind of “broken” in the sense that she’ll cower and hide from me when I yell too loudly at her. I don’t think this is a sign of a healthy human and dog relationship.
But another example comes to mind that goes back to the first few weeks I got Yuna.
Yuna’s most vocal week was her first week with me. She’d bark whenever she saw dogs on walks, and this was often. We are in Seattle for goodness sake.
Perhaps it was because she had never seen dogs with such frequency back in Korea. It was all probably a very new experience to her, and she was just expressing her enthusiasm in the new environment.
I was afraid that Yuna would be the type of dog that got the neighbors angry because she’d bark too much at everything. Now, I shake my head at such a ridiculous thought, but the first week certainly seemed like she’d be a somewhat noisy pup.
So I took to negative reinforcement to curb her barking. Whenever she barked at a dog, I’d pull her away from the distraction, get her into a sit, and give her a few harsh words.
After a few weeks of doing this, she actually did stop barking at other dogs.
Whether this is because she just getting accustomed to the amount of dogs we meet in Seattle, or the negative reinforcement doing its work, I’m not sure I’m happy with the results.
You see, it’s crazy to say, but now I’m almost begging Yuna to bark so I can have some proof that she hasn’t lost her voice.
She went from barking a couple times each walk to now barking once, maybe twice a month. She barks so rarely that my eyes light up whenever she does it, no matter what the cause is.
Owners of noisy dogs are probably really jealous of me for having such a quiet, well-behaved dog, but I guess we always chase what we cannot have.
I want Yuna to bark just so I know she’s still got some intrinsic doggy wildness left in her!
I really don’t know if she refrains from barking because she’s already associated it with a negative consequence. I’ve tried knocking on the door for minutes at a time, playing sounds of other dogs barking, playing sounds of ambulance sirens, or ringing doorbells and making curious sounds… all things that would probably rile a normal dog up and get him to bark. Nothing from Yuna.
My point is simply this. Be very careful what you consciously and sub-consciously reinforce, whether positively or negatively. It can have permanent consequences on your dog’s behavior, and they may be insanely difficult to revert once etched in your dog’s mind.
Correcting For 2019 And Beyond – Reinforcing Positive Reinforcement
I’m proud to say that in December 2018,
The number of times I’ve raised my temper over a necessary threshold: 0
The number of times I’ve thrown the leash on the floor in frustration: 0
I want to bond with Yuna the right way. It’s one of my top, if not the top, New Year’s Resolutions that I have. That means improving my patience with her, eliminating overly harsh negative reinforcements, and properly reinforcing new behaviors and tricks.
Again, this doesn’t mean completely removing negative reinforcement. She will still receive a few harsh words if the situation calls for it, but never should she feel scared enough to hide in a corner of the house.
Instead, for 2019 and beyond, I am going to focus on positive reinforcement.
Using positive reinforcement to curb bad behaviors can sound a little unintuitive at first. It is a technique that requires a ton of patience and adapting on your part to implement successfully.
The general idea is twofold. First, you try to catch your dog right before they are about to commit a bad behavior, and try to redirect them to you to avoid the bad behavior altogether.
Secondly, positively reinforce your dog whenever they are behaving well. It’s simple!
In Yuna’s case, this would mean that whenever she’s about to put tension on the leash, I’ll try to get her attention right before that. If she slows down, I’ll praise her and give her a reward.
And if she just happens to be heeling by my side, even without command, this deserves a jackpot treat!
I believe that this method is not only a better way to build my bond with Yuna, but will also train her to think about her behaviors a little more closely.
We’ve got a lot of work to do in 2019. Hope we make some headway!
If you’ve made it all the way to the end, we’d love to hear about your experiences and your thoughts on this topic. Does negative reinforcement work on your dog, and how do you implement it? Do you use positive reinforcement exclusively when training in behaviors?
Side Note: Yuna’s First Experience Away From Me For 10 Days
On the evening of December 20th, I started a ten day vacation where I had to leave Yuna behind. I had fixed her a schedule that saw six nights at a dog boarding/daycare, and four nights with my roommate at home.
I prepped most of this article in advance of the vacation, and just touched it up, so I didn’t have time to reflect on this experience here. But expect a full-fledged article about this soon, and what you should do if you’re going to spend an extended amount of time away from your pup for vacation.
We hope everyone had a great 2018 and is ready for the new year. If you’re here and reading this, I want to thank you so much for stopping by! 2018 changed my life entirely and I wanted to share everything I learned about dog care here to help others.
To this end, we are ready to include valuable daily dog tips in each of Yuna’s Instagram posts, so be sure to check it out! One tip a day for 365 days in 2019. You won’t want to miss out.
Happy New Year everybody! May 2019 be the happiest yet for you and your pups. More comprehensive content is in the works!