The Biscayne Times

Jul 08th
Stop Pinching My Arm! PDF Print E-mail
Written by Lisa Hartman   
October 2009

How to train a human that dogs can live with

We all know that living with animals is tough. They require as much emotional support as they do physical exercise and daily upkeep. They display behaviors that are all too often misread by the humans in their lives. But many times owners find themselves frustrated with their pets -- canines in particular -- when they are certain their dogs are doing something on purpose, or that the dogs’ “know” they shouldn’t be doing something.

Some humans might begin analyzing, for example, why their dog barks obsessively in public, causing them embarrassment. Or why their dog picks fights with other dogs. Their pet, they believe, should know better than to do something like that. Their pet, they feel, is being unappreciative.

“How can you do this to me after all I do for you? After all I put up with from you? I rescued you!”

Thoughts like this are common among dog owners, especially when the problem is embarrassing or when time and money have been spent on practice and training in a specific area. Resentment and anger usually follow, and then it’s just a countdown until the owner starts punishing the dog, verbally or physically or both.

But what can I do as a dog trainer if the dogs’ owners truly believe their pets understand what is being said to them, and that the dogs are acting out on purpose and should be punished? Or what if the owner is confused regarding what method to use in training, positive or negative? What do I do?

I turn the tables on them.

It’s called the Training Game. I essentially train the owner to do a task just as a dog would be trained. I cannot speak to the owner. Dogs, after all, do not come to their training with knowledge of a human language.

First I decide on the lesson, like having the owner turn on a light switch or a lamp. Next I train him in the old-school way, using negative or punishing reinforcement. But I do not actually tell him that -- just as I cannot explain to a dog how anything works. I used this very example with a client last year: I trained him to turn on a desk lamp.

Every time the owner took a wrong step away from the desk lamp, I delivered a punisher. In this case, I pinched his arm. The dog’s owner went to sit on the sofa. Pinch. He went toward the chair. Pinch. Looking around the room, the owner again thought I must want him to do something with the sofa and returned to it. Pinch! Even after just three light pinches, I could see the owners’ frustration and anger rising. He paused, and then headed for the television remote control. Pinch. Fuming, he flew around and irately yelled at me: “Why do you keep pinching my arm? Stop it!” His nostrils were flaring.

My, isn’t it easy to provoke humans to aggression!

After that emotional outburst, I switched my tactics and began to train the owner using positive reinforcement. As he didn’t learn that I wanted him to turn on the desk lamp in the first exercise, I kept that as our goal. Almost casually, my owner looked in the direction of the lamp. “Good!” I said, and gave him a quarter.

Surprised and still not clear about my wishes, he began walking in circles. He walked past the now ominous sofa. I did nothing. He gingerly glanced at the chair and cautiously walked by it. Again I said nothing.

Looking for inspiration, the owner surveyed the room, glancing back to the corner where the lamp was perched on a desk. “Good!” I exclaimed for the second time, and happily gave him another quarter.

You could almost hear the gears turning in my dog owner’s head. He looked over toward the lamp again. Another quarter. For reassurance, he looked again. Another “Good!” from me and yet another quarter for him.

Now the owner was happy and excited, and moved toward the desk confidently. As he moved in the right direction, I continued to give him positive reinforcement. Another dollar richer as he arrived at the desk, he thought for a second, sat on the desk chair, and looked at me. I said nothing but smiled at him.

I waited, but not for long. He looked back at the lamp, turned the switch, and the light came on. Jackpot!

“Very good!” Quarter, quarter, quarter, quarter!

Using the positive training model, it’s easy to see how the trainee remains motivated and unafraid in trying to understand what you want. You can also bet that the he will eagerly repeat the behavior in the future. He also learned that training is fun and rewarding, which will carry over to the lessons that follow.

On the other hand, in the negative game, our human became stressed, frustrated, and finally aggressive. And that was only following a few mild upper-arm pinches. Imagine if I had used a choke chain on him! He might have shut down and completely stopped trying. Or he might have actually tried to physically assault me. It’s a sure bet that with punishers in the learning stage, the trainee is not looking forward to the next lesson.

The Training Game serves its purpose in demonstrating to owners what the learning experience is like from an animal’s point of view, and how, even with rewards, you can still be unclear as to what behavior is wanted. You will need to practice the behavior and reward it numerous times before the student is sure of your expectations and more confident in his movements.

But the best part of the Training Game is that, after playing, owners are always more compassionate toward their dogs and have a better understanding of the learning process.

And that helps to create an owner dogs can live with.


Lisa Hartman is head dog trainer for Pawsitively Pets. You can reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or You can also keep up with her and her dogs on Facebook at

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