Should You Use a Squirt Bottle to Train Your Dog?
Learn whether a squirt bottle is a useful training tool and discover the super top secret of dog training.
This week, I’ll take up a question posted on my Facebook page: Should you use a squirt bottle to train your dog?
Should You Use a Squirt Bottle to Train Your Dog?
There’s a short answer, and it’s no. But the long answer--or as long as we’re going to get, being Quick and Dirty--includes some handy tools for figuring out how to solve problems when you’re training your dog. In fact, it includes the whole, entire, complete super top secret of dog training. Betcha can’t wait.
Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training
The technical definition of positive reinforcement is “a consequence of some particular behavior that makes that particular behavior more likely to happen again.” For example, suppose you give your dog a treat for lying down on cue, or for turning her attention away from some appealing street garbage and toward you. The treat will (probably) positively reinforce lying down / turning her attention to you. (I have to say "probably," because the proof comes in seeing how your dog's future behavior is affected. But if you're using halfway decent treats, the odds are pretty good!)
So can squirt bottles be part of positive reinforcement training? Nope, not unless the dog likes the water spray and the spray makes him more likely to repeat the behavior you responded to with spraying. If your dog loves being sprayed, you have my blessing to use your squirt gun as a reward.
Do Spray Bottles Work in Dog Training?
For most dogs, the water spray is an aversive, meaning something unpleasant to them. Is it a punishment? Maybe -- by the technical definition that trainers (should) use, a punishment makes a behavior less likely in the future. Many aversives are unpleasant but don't actually cut down on the behavior they're aimed at. Water spray often falls into this category. That’s probably because it’s usually advised for behaviors dogs find extremely rewarding, such as jumping up and licking our faces to greet us.
Punishments Should Work Fast – Otherwise They’re Abusive
Most trainers, even trainers who are comfortable using aversives, agree that if you're trying to punish a behavior and the “punishment” doesn't work within a few tries, you're wasting your time. If the aversive is harsh, such as jerking hard on the dog's collar or delivering an electric shock, the repeated attempts can qualify as animal abuse. Probably even repeated water spray isn't really abusive to most dogs, but if you're spraying your dog over and over without success (meaning a fairly permanent stop to the behavior, not just a temporary interruption), you definitely need a new tactic.
Why Using a Squirt Bottle to Train Your Dog is Not a Good Idea
What if the water spray does work -- you do it once or twice and your dog never jumps up again or never chases the cat again or whatever? That's awfully tempting. But you've still got a couple of problems. Most dogs need to be bathed every so often; if you've used a water spray as a punishment, you might just have made bathing harder. If your dog is so sensitive to the spray that a couple of shots kill the behavior you want to kill, you risk teaching her to be afraid of the sprayer. Seriously, do you want your dog worrying every time you break out the plant mister? Worse yet, what if she learns to fear your hand and arm approaching her face?
And there you have it in a nutshell--why a thoughtful dog trainer will wince and try to change your mind if you’re thinking about trying even an aversive that seems pretty mild, like a water sprayer to stop a dog from jumping up. On the one hand, even if your dog dislikes it, the odds are not great that it will work. So you’ve wound up doing something unpleasant to your dog and accomplishing exactly nothing.
Can Punishment Mess Up a Sensitive Dog?
On the other hand, if your dog is a sensitive sort and spraying her in the face with water does stop her once and for all from jumping up, you could wind up with a tidy gift package of Extra Problems You Didn't Want. Can you know for sure in advance whether your dog is that sensitive? No, and I’ll prove it to you.
My dog Juniper is 80 pounds of Pit Bull mix. If you discount the wiggly butt, he looks like a tough guy. He also looks like a tough guy when we’ve been hiking and he comes back with thorn scratches on his face and one foot bleeding where he cut it on a rock and he doesn’t even care. But once, just once, I accidentally caught some loose skin in the clip of his harness. He screamed and headed for the basement, and it took me two weeks to get him to the point where he’d stay in the same room with the harness when I picked it up. Mind you, I hadn’t even pulled out any hair, much less broken skin. It’s very hard to be sure that a dog is just sensitive enough to learn when we do unpleasant things to her, yet not so sensitive that those same unpleasant things will seriously freak her out. (1)
Punishment Doesn’t Teach Your Dog What You Do Want
And you might have noticed that punishing your dog for doing whatever still hasn’t got the job done. What do you want your dog to do instead? Save time, energy, and unhappiness by teaching her that to begin with.
This leads us to the Mantra of Reward-Based Dog Training: If your dog is doing something you don't like, figure out what you do want her to do in that situation. Then figure out how to set her up to do that good behavior. (Start with a very easy version of the problem situation.) Then reward the heck out of her when she does what you want.
I've just given away the store, people: That's the secret of dog training, right there. Figure out what you want your dog to do. Figure out how to set up the situation so that she naturally offers you that behavior. Then reward her generously. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If your dog loves that squirt bottle, then squirt her to your heart’s content. But otherwise, stick to misting the plants.
I hope you’ll follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. Stop by The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thank you for reading!
1. The learning-theory-savvy reader will be saying “Aha! But the pinch was a noncontingent aversive!” (“Noncontingent” means the unpleasantness happened at random, not as a response to any particular behavior. Organisms–your dog; you; a platypus–can learn how to avoid contingent aversives by avoiding the behavior that elicits the aversive. Once an animal learns how to avoid the aversive, she or he knows how to stay safe, so stress declines. But since noncontingent aversives arrive at random and aren’t under the animal’s control, repeated experience of them produces great stress and fear. Deliver enough noncontingent aversives and you’ll drive your dog, your lab rat, your spouse, or your platypus out of its mind.)
Anyway, it’s true that the pinch was noncontingent, whereas if you spray your dog in the face every time he jumps up, that’s a contingent aversive. However, notice that from the dog’s point of view, that first spray of water (or that first zap from the shock collar) comes out of the blue just as much as Juniper’s accidental pinch did. Deliver that out-of-the-blue aversive to a dog who–oops!–finds that particular aversive especially aversive, and you’ve got problems, for example a dog who makes like Elvis when you bring out his walking harness.
Spray Bottle image courtesy of Shutterstock