Blame it on age, diet, stress, whatever… I started getting acid reflux recently. For those of you that don’t know, let this humble Long Beach dog trainer tell you what this hell is like…
It feels like I vomit pure stomach acid. As a matter of fact, I think medically speaking, that’s exactly what happened. It came up into my throat, and flooded my sinuses. Everything in my face hurt for several, painful, minutes. Then a few hours later, it happened again. After the second bout of reflux torture in the same day, my stomach started to feel like there was both a tornado and a volcano, fighting 90’s Godzilla style. Just pure discomfort. I chomped down a million Tums and hoped for the best. I cursed the delicious cheese fries I had eaten, assuming they must be the culprit. Went to bed and thought, tomorrow will be a better day.
The next morning, my throat was tremendously sore and painful. Anything I ate caused stomach problems. I didn’t know what was happening. The day after that, the same. I had to come to grips with the possible fact that this could be my life from now on. So – to a doctor for sage advice I went.
Now. We all know what we’re supposed to do in life. Keep our stress levels down. Drink lots of water. Eat healthy food. Stay away from too much sugar, too much fried foods. Don’t over eat. Try not to eat one giant meal a day. Stay active. Blah blah… We ALL know these things. We all know the benefits too! It’s the very positive reward of a healthy mind, less aches and pains, looking good naked, etc. We all know we could do this. But many of us just don’t. Because the positive feels too far away, it feels unattainable. Or because we don’t know how. Not enough instruction, not enough hand holding when we need it most, to get over a hump. Or simply because the act of doing the wrong thing is really fun and positive in it’s own way. Sort of like a dog’s barking, jumping on people, getting into garbage, stealing food off a counter. Get my drift?
When the doctor told me I basically had esophogitis – damage to my esophagus from the stomach acid during acid reflux – I had two options. Ignore him, and continue to do what I wanted, which is to eat whatever I want, and risk always dealing with stomach discomfort and acid reflux. Or, I could choose better foods. Stay away from sugar, spicy foods, fried foods. Chew my food more, and eat slower, and just let my stomach acids calm down on it’s own over a span of weeks, to allow my esophagus to heal. For me, the choice was easy. The thought of the positive punishment far outweighed the bad but fun behavior of eating anything I wanted to. I went to my favorite grocery store, stocked up on salad greens, and simple proteins to go with it. Drank a ton of water and tea, cut most sugary foods out (except for the Acai juice I love, and the occasional fruit and Twizzler snack). I chewed my food until it felt like baby food, before swallowing, which meant I ate way slower in general. Ate more small meals throughout the day to ensure my stomach wasn’t over full for too long. It was actually a pretty easy transition, because the memory of acid burning in my sinuses was enough motivation to do it!
So how does this apply to dog training? In dog training, I often find myself defending my methods of balanced dog training. Balanced dog training just means I don’t cut out any tools from my training programs. I look at the dog in front of me and decide which tools to use to motivate the dog to choose the behaviors I want, and a consequence to help the dog choose not to give me behaviors I don’t want.
With the wave of purely positive training, there has been a huge trend of not using anything that can be considered negative with your dog. This includes any form of physical correction, physical contact, or even saying ‘No.’ While positive training is absolutely necessary in the realm of training, it is hard to conceptualize how relying solely on positive training can be complete. We learn well from negative consequences, as do animals. It is the way nature inherently teaches species how to survive, how to evolve.
When I teach a dog new tricks, fun behaviors, it is easy to rely heavily, and only on positive reinforcement. Dog doesn’t get it right, simply withhold the reward (negative reinforcement) until the dog does the thing you want – boom, pay! Dog is happy, you are happy and eventually dog figures out what he has to do to get the reward from you.
However, with the increase in dog aggression cases alone, there are certain training cases that need more. Behaviors like stealing food off a counter, for example, we simply cannot rely solely on the dog to choose the correct pathway, for a positive reward. The act of being a bad dog is already worth it to them! Adding a clear negative marker with a positive punishment can certainly make it clear to the dog that another option is better.
Without my body, literally telling me, ‘Hey asshole. Take better care of us, please,’ with a very painful, positive punishment (acid up my throat), I wouldn’t have the inclination to just do it on my own, even though the positive rewards are obvious and attainable. Yeah, it sucked. Yeah, I would rather not have felt it at all. But it damn sure did the trick. Kicked my butt right into gear, and here I am, just a few weeks later, craving carrot sticks over chips. Dogs can and will benefit from this sort of, very clear communication.