The “yelling” question comes up regularly for positive reinforcement-based trainers. “Am I a bad person if I yell at my dogs?” “Is it positive punishment to yell at my dogs?” And the accusatory version, “Do you NEVER yell at your dogs? Of course you do! And that’s punishment, so you aren’t a ‘positive’ trainer after all. Gotcha!”
Rather unbelievably, I’m not going to go into a quadrants discussion here. Wow. But check out “Only if the Behavior Decreases” if you want to address the question of whether yelling can be punishment.
Instead, I’d like to talk about what I do regarding yelling.
I’m human. Even if I don’t intend to, sometimes I yell. I won’t argue that I can’t help it, but it would be very hard to change the behavior of yelling as a response to being startled. And it is a functional response, so one that I might not want to try to get rid of (as difficult as that would be).
I have certainly done the “startled yell” at my dogs. If a dog is sitting right next to me and suddenly leaps up and barks in my ear, I am going to be startled and likely yell. Likewise, if I am tired and strung out (trigger stacking) and one of them does something that provokes me, let’s just say that I may not speak in my nicest voice.
Knowing that about myself, I took a simple action.
The word that generally comes out of my mouth when I’m startled is, “Hey!” Given that, when any new dog comes into the household I classically condition that word to predict great things. I pair my saying the word with a great treat. And I start off in a conversational tone that won’t startle the dog at all. I talk about this in more detail in “Only if the Behavior Decreases.”
Once the dog is learning that my saying “Hey!” predicts a treat, I raise the volume gradually, then raise the stress in my voice. The end result is that I can yell, “Hey!” in the meanest voice I can muster and my dogs turn to me or come running happily.
I do the same thing with each dog’s name. I say it in all different tones of voice, pairing it with something great.
I’m not a big yeller, but conditioning “Hey!” and the dog’s name seems to spread nicely to other things I might yell as well.
Thorough readers of my blog will have noticed by now that I have classically conditioned a fair number of things.
- Other dogs barking
- Various sudden noises
- Other dogs playing
- Truck engines and delivery noises
- The dogs’ names
- Other sudden environmental changes
All of these things started off as pure classical conditioning, but, as is typical, the operant behaviors started piling on and getting reinforced. And they are good behaviors! Reorienting to me, even running to me when the event happens if the dog is a distance away. All these things that are classically conditioned potentially turn into recall cues/positive interrupters.
But we always need to think these things through. All these recall cues presuppose that the triggers will happen in situations where it is both desirable and safe for my dogs to come running to me. Frankly I am rarely in situations where that would not be safe. Areas where my dogs might be off leash, however large, are generally enclosed or not in a busy area. However, there’s always that horrifying possibility that my dog might get loose and see me from across a busy street or a similar hazard. That’s the one type of situation when I don’t want my dog to come running to me. For that reason, I also teach my dogs a distance down by hand signal and vocal cue. It means to drop right where they are.
That reminds me, I should practice that some more. Here’s an older post with a video where you can see some practice though: Safety behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls.
Lots of people defend yelling at their dogs in a disciplinary way. They feel they need their dogs’ respect or need to convey to their dogs that what they are doing at times is “unacceptable.” But we need to be honest. If those methods reliably work to interrupt and lessen (punish) behavior, it’s because there is a threat. Yelling by itself, beyond the startle effect, is not that potent of a punisher to an adult dog. That’s why people who yell in an attempt to interrupt or change their dogs’ behavior tend to keep yelling and yelling.
What dog wants to come to someone who is mad and grumbly, or worse, likely to hurt them? What you typically get from “disciplinary” yelling is ambivalent behavior. If you call them when angry they may come, but they will likely come creeping, or perhaps even grovel in place. (How many YouTube videos have we seen of that?)
How much better is it to have an interrupter that dogs respond to with delight? I’ll take the positive interrupter and the dog’s joyful reorienting anytime. Plus if I am actually mad, it gives me a moment to get ahold of myself as they run to me eagerly. And it’s pretty hard to stay mad at those happy little faces. (Here is Emily Larlham’s tutorial on teaching a positive interrupter.)
If we let go of the idea of trying to prove to our dogs that they are being “bad” and look at how to interrupt the behavior, a positive interrupter is a great way to go.
Want to see what happens when I yell, “Hey!” at my dogs?
But won’t interrupting my dogs when they are doing an undesired behavior, then giving them a treat, indirectly reward those behaviors they are performing when interrupted? Won’t I get more obnoxious behavior? If that were the only time I reinforced my dogs’ behavior, I might have something to worry about. But my dogs earn reinforcers all day long doing things I like. And I catch them being good far more than I interrupt them doing stuff I don’t like. The Matching Law is on my side. I’m not going to have a huge upsurge of barking in my ear or fence running or bullying another dog. My dogs can get my attention and earn a treat a lot more easily than that!
I can truly say that yelling is not a punishment, or even particularly unpleasant, for my dogs. If you condition yelling, it can be just another strange noise in their life that predicts good things.
Explanation of the Photo Above
Here’s the unedited original. I hadn’t yelled. I had given them broccoli, and they were extremely disappointed. I’m so mean!