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This post is written by Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, Ph.D., an applied animal behaviorist. If you would like to SCHEDULE A CONSULT with Dr. Shyan-Norwalt for your own dog or cat, please contact Leo’s Pet Care!
Recently, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a conference to professional animal caretakers. The topic they asked for was “Positive Training Techniques.” Now, the term “Positive Training Techniques” has become very popular. Obedience trainers list it in their ads, veterinarians discuss it with owners, popular TV trainers will use the term. The thinking seems to be that, if we only reward our animals for good behavior and ignore the bad behaviors, the animals will behave correctly. I was struck by this speaker’s topic request because, as any good behaviorist (and any parent) knows, behavior is just not that simple.
In these times, when many people think of their pets as more than animals (and I do so myself, don’t get me wrong), when pet food companies are selling their products on TV with phrases like “They’re just not your pets, they’re your family), it might be a good time to compare how we discipline pets and how we discipline children. Scientific studies of parenting style suggest that combinations of nurturing (affection) and discipline (enforced rules) produce the best outcomes. Now, I am not trying to tell people how to raise their children. I’m trying to draw analogies between parenting style and pet-management style. Misconceptions about “Positive Training” lead to behavior problems and this analogy may help our understanding.
In 1978, Baumrind1 developed a parenting style model, (although we all know people in all four categories below who “beat the odds” and succeed, or “ignore the opportunities” and fail) which looks like this:
|High Discipline||Low Discipline|
|High Nurturing||Authoritative (Rules/Flexibility)||Permissive (No Rules/Flexibility)|
|Low Nurturing||Authoritarian (Rules/No Flexibility)||Neglecting (Nothing)|
“Nurturing” means how much love and affection the parent gives. “Discipline” means how much guidance and rules, as well as punishment (negative consequences for inappropriate behavior) the parent gives.
A) Authoritative parents (High-D, High-N) provide rules and enforce them, but also supply lots of affection. They recognize that sometimes exceptions should be made for rule-breaking, and discuss the issues with their children. Research shows that children of authoritative parents tend to have High Success and High Self Esteem as adults.
B) Authoritarian parents (High-D, Low-N) provide rigidly enforced rules, with no exceptions and no discussion, and don’t show much affection. Research shows that children of authoritarian parents show High Success but Low Self Esteem as adults.
C) Permissive parents (Low,-D, High-N) provide little rules and lots of love. Research shows that, as adults, these children have High Self Esteem, but Low Success—as they tend to have poor self-discipline and blame their failures on others.
D) Neglecting Parents (Low-D, Low-N) provide nothing to their children. These children raise themselves, or find others to raise them. They have a tough time succeeding and a tough time with self-esteem.
So what does this say about training (parenting?) style for pets. In brief, Authoritative styles work best. Pets need to be trained to understand what they are doing right, but also what they are doing wrong. This does NOT mean a return to choke chains, jerking dogs, hitting animals, or other such physical punishments. But a loud, stern “NO,” a disruption of undesired behaviors (grab a dog’s collar and pull him away…, give the biting cat a five minute time-out in the bathroom), as well as praise, petting, and rewards for good behaviors, works best. Animals NEED positive training—they need to know what they are doing right as well as wrong. But they also need consistent guidelines to learn what not to do.
So next time someone mentions “Positive only Training Techniques,” raise an eyebrow, tilt your head and think “Hmmm… is this a permissive pet parent? Just how successful is their pet?”
1Baumrind, D. (1978). Parental disciplinary patterns and social competence in children. Youth & Society, 9 (3), 239-251.