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It's not just terminology: Using a disability justice lens to understand the difference between correction and punishment in dog training
We take a glorious week annually at one of our favorite places to be in the off-season, Cape Cod. Our dogs enjoy this vacation as much as we do, and we spend our time recharging together on the beach, on trails, adventures, and rental properties. This is a trick with four dogs, and I won’t tell you that it is the most relaxing vacation possible. Four dogs is plenty and we love them all but it’s a large pack of varying needs, and we are two neurodivergent people with various sensory triggers sometimes incompatible with 16 paws, 4 noses, plus 3 tails and a wiggle butt.
All of that aside, we always have a rejuvenating time- one that connects us all together because it allows us to so much get back to what I imagine a rhythm looks like for us as a whole without the pressure or "work". We spent 3-4 hours outside, run/play for 90 or so minutes plus sitting and contemplating the scenery for the remainder. We nap in the afternoon, piled on top of another, inter species legs tangled. We keep warm by a fire in the evening, throw a ball, share a snack or two and then relax after a day well spent. Delightful, and wholly unattainable for more than a brief period unless one is unimaginably wealthy.
This year was Oscar’s first family vacation, and I was really excited and also nervous to see how all of our training would be tested in this environment. He is generally happy to be ANYWHERE that his siblings and we are- so I figured he would love the beach- but it’s a highly stimulating environment and I was worried about his basic command response and coming back when called. I had planned for him to be on a long line for our whole trip, even with our ecollar bc he had limited practice recalling in fenced in areas. He blew us away with just how awesome he did. The months of working with him on his ecollar, setting up clear expectations around opportunities for play and down time, what marker words mean- and having 3 other incredibly well behaved dogs did the trick. His return when called was better than we could have ever expected- with maybe only 2-3 corrections needed the whole week. He definitely had his puppy moments, and was an actual sand monster, but overall he was joyous, ran like the wind and listened beautifully. It was incredible. It really had me thinking about how to explain why it is so important to contextualize the difference between guidance with correction, and punishment.
More recently, I had been thinking about why the term “punishment” in dog training has always felt uncomfortable. There are the obvious carceral connotations - but then there is the strict definition used in psychology and behavioral sciences. But I don’t think that even with the technical definition, we can avoid the lingering hue of crime and this intangible air of “bad dog” that doesn’t sit well with me when it comes to dog training.
I use the term “correction” because I mean a course correction. This isn’t just semantics, it also manifests in how we apply pressure tools or use place/crate. For example- when we start a dog learning on a prong collar, we start by conditioning the dog to the sensation of the prong. When I pop the lead towards me, and the dogs moves in my direction, they receive a reward - either verbal praise or food depending on how far they move towards me. This helps the handler learn that the prong pop is not meant to be with enough force to cause intense discomfort- let alone pain (same as with a slip lead, we always want the softest hands we can use). The reason we do this is really simple: we want the dog to move easily and we are combining tactics to make that as clear as possible. It works great. The pressure applied is clear but gentle and responding to it correctly is rewarded. It also creates a positive association with the tool so the dog isn’t startled or having a strong aversion to its use. Our goal is always that any of the corrections we issue are effective on a finger tip’s worth of pressure- be it a pressure tool or the ecollar, we want it to be clear for the dog and gentle on the human, too.
Moreover, the goal of my training has developed into working towards a model of accessibility for clients. And what that means- is that clients are clear on the concepts and can physically perform the skills without breaking down. That doesn’t mean training is not challenging or I get it right all the time. But I am trying to center my dog training in a position of disability justice- and not overcoming disability, which is different from programs typically run elsewhere. There are plenty of other service dog programs, and dog training companies run by individuals with disabilities- but the world of disability justice needs far more representation and more importantly- buy-in to do the work of centralizing disability advocacy in all contexts but of course, specifically service dog training.
To elaborate further:
There is a distinct difference between overcoming adversity as a symbol of “disability diversity” versus accepting limitations and creating accommodations as part of advocating for enthusiastic inclusion.
This is not limited to a conversation on using tools to train dogs in order to provide physical accessibility for a handler.
It is also in who we accept as apprentices, and how we teach the skills necessary for the trade to continue on, both lessons I wish I had learned sooner. It is in every engagement we have in clients- the way we reach them, it’s in where we teach- the clients we teach. It is in what treats we buy, the costs of our dog training equipment. The scope is enormous and it has to be constantly considered and adapted to be better than it was before. Because accessible IS inherently better. Everyone benefits every time that RT adds an accessible aspect to our dog training, both clients and dogs.
So what does this all have to do, with coming back to course corrections? Everything, when you stop to think about it. Maybe it’s a reflection of my own sensitivity that punishment doesn’t sit well with me- I was punished early and often for things that I realize now, as an adult, were manifestations of my disabilities. In those moments my specific “behaviors'' were no doubt inappropriate- probably loud and disruptive. But no one was helping me emotionally regulate, or easing my discomfort- providing accommodation to prevent any of those escalations.
Dogs are Not humans, and I want to say that first. My own lived experience as an abused kid does not mean that we can’t use pressure tools in dog training in a fair way. What it does mean is that I have a problem with “punishment” and have developed a training model that doesn’t conform to ideas around the ideas of wrongness or crime. It’s about language between handler/dog, and decision making together. We can use pressure tools appropriately to course correct without causing pain. We can be mindful of accessibility and centered in disability justice and still remember dogs are not people.
One of the fundamental misunderstandings between a disability justice centered program and another dog training program is seeing corrections as negative, instead of as progress. I see a dog’s mistakes as important to their process of learning, and capitalizing on that moment as crucial to directing change, and helping the handler to negotiate a better outcome with their teammate. But I also see them as necessary to address, I am not going to ignore the problem, or always remove the trigger stimulus, or whatever the case may be. And I am not going to leave my dog out to dry and expect them to perform stoic neutrality without my feedback- which is a recurring problem in dog training that is just repackaged toxic masculinity from old training methodology.
Need an example?
A handler takes a dog through a battery of “tests" meant to “prove” that the dog can handle a variety of stimuli without being triggered. It’s basically an obedience test- but re framed as emotional regulation when it’s essentially a suppression performance. It reminds me of popular "Alpha" dog techniques popularized in the early 2000's. Essentially, it is dominance, but performed quietly.The dog is meant to remain neutral at each station of surprise things- be it another dog, a human with a toy, a loud noise- whatever. This at face value is a useful exercise for proofing obedience, we use something similar to train service dogs for public access as one of our comprehensive techniques. But often, when I watch these “demonstrations” the handler is basically holding their breath and so is the dog. The feedback between them is just this practiced mask of neutrality to get through the gauntlet. Sure, the dog isn’t reacting to a trigger- but I wouldn’t say that this demonstrates a clear improvement in the long term emotional health or progress- it’s just suppression instead of overt reaction.
What I would want to see differently, truly- is a dog emoting. I want to see a dog express delight, confusion, even some mild fear- and then I want the dog to check in with their handler that all is well. And here lies the crux of the difference between applying correction vs punishment- if my dog reacted poorly to the stimulus- I would correct, but only if the dog had enough context to know how to process that stimulus (as in: we had done plenty of desensitization, counter conditioning and practice with expectations) clearly- on an appropriate tool and then redirect into the desired behavior. We would stay, work on the stimulus- reward, play, party. I would be so thorough in my communication with my dog about my desire for the change in their response. And then we would repeat that process a million times until we got it right. If I just punished the dog- if I didn’t use clarity on my tool- I could easily just use any tool to force a dog into compliance. But that’s not my goal. And I truly don't understand how it’s appealing.
Consider another example:
A handler is opposed to all use of corrections and shows the same type of emotion as the dog at every stimulus in the same scenario- fear at a noise, slow recovery to startling sounds etc. The handler is over-emoting with the dog and the dog is not getting clear direction on how to navigate the distractions. There is no use of tools, so very little direction coming from the leash on how to approach these things, af all. The dog in this case is living hotly in the present- unable to process and the handler thinks they are just validating the dog’s experience. But is that our role as the guardian of this animal?
I don’t think so. I don’t think our role is to let the dog lead when they are in distress. We can validate their fear through providing comfort- but we also need to help them course correct- still. I am not going to correct a dog for being afraid. But I am going to help that dog work through that fear appropriately. Fear is a temporary state, so is reactivity, it’s not an “all the time” state of mind. We have the obligation to provide appropriate guidance to these animals we ask to live in our world. That’s what using a clear “yes” and “try again” mean in the simplest way possible. So when I see one of my service dog handlers, with a dog who has had a breadth of experience, for example- entering a store- have their dog sputter at an automatic door- we have a built in plan. It becomes a conversation. We do not hold our breath and expose the dog until they stop responding. We correct the dog for coming out of heel position, first. Then we go into reinforcing heavily with positive markers and food rewards near the doors to create a better memory about the stimulus. Then, we try the door again- if the heel position is improved- we reward and move on- never let perfect be the enemy of progress in training, more often than not giving it time is your best bet and ending on progress will be enough. If there is still a change in heel position that is notable- we will do it again. But with these dogs- they know the correction was just for heel position, not for emotionally responding to the door, and they know they will get the support they need to get through the surprise of the door stimulus, so they are able to work through it successfully and quickly.
This also centers my client, who does not want to feel that they are dragging their dog into a place they are afraid of. It can be hard as a human being to not personalize the response of your dog. Especially, when you are training a service dog that you need in order to be able to do things like go to the grocery store. Some of my handlers feel guilty when their dog is learning something new or challenging because the dog might be nervous or working through a scary step. And that is another reason why how we apply communication and correction matters. When we are able to be extremely specific about correcting for heel position and also address emotional regulation for an opening door- we are also centralizing the lived experience of that disabled handler as very much needing to be validated in how they work with their dog. And this has been incredibly valuable in developing all of my training, because it has brought it to a level where all of my clients are working on communication in a way that wasn’t fathomable without disabled lived experience. Also, like many of my clients, the grocery store is a BIG hurdle for many folks with sensory issues, so when we work with our dogs we are exceptionally sensitive to their needs as relatable. Which doesn’t mean that we stop if a dog is concerned- it means we create an accessible environment through breaking down the communication for the dog to be successful for the team and take it slow. That’s how we centralize the needs of the team as a whole and become more successful. If my client feels their dog “doesn’t want” to help them, we need to take the time to talk about how the dog “doesn’t want” to go through the door because the door is weird and not about their relationship. But we can use their bond to work through that fear and come out better on the other side. This helps them trust their dog more in situations where they are needed for important disability specific tasks and understand that dogs can have responses not to be taken personally.
Lastly, I think a lot about the concept put forth that if you use a tool for the duration of your relationship with your dog, somehow your dog “isn’t” trained, or if you still need to say “no”, your dog hasn’t learned a concept.
I don’t expect my dog to change out of being an animal, and I don’t expect their desires to completely go away. Generally, when they learn expectations they are remarkably good about consistency because I am still reliable about rewarding and encouraging. That being said, they are still living beings- and training as well as behavior are not linear. Dogs are allowed to have bad moods, and bad days. Human beings are allowed to use the tools that best communicate with their dogs simply, and there is no reason to prove to anyone else that you can “do without” that adaptive equipment any more than you would try to drive without your glasses. Mistakes are going to happen, and saying “no” is not harm-based if it doesn’t come with a break in the bond. Learning to do this opens up a world of possibility, and frankly is a life skill we need as humans as well. I think part of accepting a life with dogs means accepting a mess, ongoing conversations about the differences in desires, and frankly- saying “yes” and “no” for their whole life. I don’t ever want to stop talking to my dog.
What if, instead of trying to define the type of control a handler is allowed to use,or argue about the lack of actual peer reviewed data on dog cognition, or fight about "adopt don't shop'', we centralized the person learning to train the dog? The reason that the RT style of training seems so unique to so many, including those in the dog industry is because disabled people have never been given the agency to participate fully in dog cultures, and shape or change it with their lived experiences at the forefront. Even as a dog professional or Many years, my intersectional identities have denied me a seat at many tables. I have learned to work around that, and accept it as a gift because it forced me to learn what I know now and more importantly, to unlearn the constructs of punishment (one example) that limited my abilities. I hope, after reading this, that maybe you'll consider exploring these concepts too, at the table of disabled led-accessibility first. We are not always successful, but we are always learning. And we never stop communicating with our dogs, even when it's a hard conversation because our relationships are built on mutual need, and to stand the test of exclusion.