Over the last ten to fifteen years, I’m seeing an increase in the use of deprivation as a training technique. I first heard of it in the behavioral realm….”nothing in life is free” otherwise known as “NILIF”. In a NILIF program the dog earns everything – the dog learns to ask (by following commands) for anything they might want or need. The dog learns that the owners controls all valuable resources, and with this recognition comes a chance to gain control of the dog’s problem behaviors.
Another common use of deprivation as a training technique is for puppy raising – commonly called “crate training”. Puppies are deprived of their freedom when they are not supervised so they can become housebroken and learn not chew up your house or personal belongings. The dog learns the rules about where to pee and what to chew, thereby hastening his movement towards trustworthy family member, while the human benefits by having the house left relatively intact. While crate training has room for abuse, as a generic training technique it provides a logical and humane answer to the realities of puppies.
The purpose of this article is not about either of these uses of deprivation, nor is it to consider the choice of some individuals to have dogs live their lives in outdoor kennels because they believe this is how dogs should live. The purpose of this article is to look at the ethics of using deprivation as a performance training technique – withholding food, movement and opportunities for social interaction – to increase the dog’s motivation to earn those things within a performance context.
One of the challenges in considering the ethics of this training method is coming up with a definition. Deprivation training is not as much a method as much as possibilities on a continuum. Deprivation suggests a change from what is “normal” – if normal is a four hour daily walk and steak for dinner, then a one hour walk and kibble for dinner must feel like a jail sentence for that dog. On the other hand, if “normal” has never included any walks at all and boredom is standard fare, then the dog isn’t truly deprived as much as “missing out” on a more interesting home – he never knew the difference.
I do not believe that there is a black and white definition for acceptable or unacceptable levels of deprivation, but it is a matter that each individual trainer might wish to contemplate. For example, in my home, I do not allow my young dog to play with my student’s dogs though she would like to do so. I do not allow her to chase squirrels in the trees , and if one of my dogs chooses not to work for me, I will end their training session. I am comfortable with my decisions because I do not consider playing with other dogs, chasing squirrels or the right to work to be basic needs as much as privileges which are earned, and I certainly provide my dogs with an interesting and enviable quality of life.
In my mind, it comes down to the underlying motivation of the owner and the degree of discomfort experienced by the dog. If the owner’s motivation is to create active discomfort in order to facilitate work then I am concerned; how concerned is a function of how much discomfort the dog is experiencing. Hunger and lack of social interaction both create active discomfort – if you question whether or not boredom and social deprivation are actively uncomfortable, I’d give the example of Jaycee Dugard, the young girl who was kidnapped and held hostage in her captor’s backyard for several years. In her recent book, “A Stolen Life, A Memoir”, she states that her boredom grew so great that she began to look forward to her captor’s visits because she so desperately craved human interaction. The fact that he raped her on these visits did not lessen her need for social interaction, and illustrates the point that deprivation can cause as much discomfort or pain as physically applying an aversive.
It seems clear that the deprivation method is compatible with heavy handed training and motivational training alike, and is widely recommended by trainers on both ends of the spectrum. Clearly, the use of deprivation falls on a continuum, so the question becomes, where does one draw the line? Let's look at two examples.
In its most mild form, food deprivation is more about HOW the dog eats rather than WHETHER the dog eats. For example, in training a young dog to track, a person might withhold their dog’s breakfast and place it at the end of the track in order to heighten their dog’s motivation. The dog earns breakfast at the end of the track. I’m comfortable with this scenario - If a dog eats out of a bowl, off a track, or out of your hands – he still eats. At the other end of the continuum, a dog who refuses to work may not receive any food at all, even if that takes several days, something I find more ethically challenging.
Or, take crating (deprivation of movement and social interaction); the use of a crate can create desire for work. For example, an owner chooses to train their dog in play skills when they get home from work for the day – the dog has been crated for a while so is keen to interact. In this use of the crate, you’re using a naturally occurring event – the dog is crated when you are not home – so he is particularly excited about playing with you when he is released from confinement. Although the trainer is using deprivation, it is not done specifically to create boredom, so I find this acceptable. The dog will want to do something when released – might as well use that opportunity to train your dog.
This becomes more troublesome when deprivation becomes a lifestyle. Let's say the dog is released from the crate after a long day and chooses not to play with the trainer, preferring to sniff and wander instead. If the dog is then placed back in the crate, she might not experience any freedom at all until she performs. And since it is common to see food deprivation combined with a crate, the dog that chooses not to work may be returned to the crate hungry.
The problem with these more extreme examples is that there are many reasons why a dog might choose not to work. While proponents of deprivation training usually argue that the reason is because the dog prefers the alternatives – possibly chasing squirrels in the yard, playing with another dog, sniffing around, or simply sleeping on the couch. Unfortunately, in my experience, the reasons usually have more to do with the handler.
I teach seminars on how to play with toys. About half of the dogs who will not play with their owners will play with me; that is because play with toys is largely a mechanical skill. In a high percentage of cases, I can teach you to play much better simply by tweaking your mechanical skills. Note that this has nothing to do with the dog – more crating or deprivation will not teach a dog to want to play if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can train some dogs to play in spite of your poor skills, especially if the dog is naturally inclined to go into play easily. But if a dog requires better handler skills to figure it out, it seems unfair to punish the dog for the trainer’s ignorance.
In addition to teaching play skills I also teach competition obedience. Fully 90% of the problems I am asked to address are solved through a change to the handler’s mechanical skills or personal interactions with their dog. If a dog lags and goes wide in heeling because the handler drifts about and walks slowly, then the solution is to teach the handler how to walk properly and reward in position. Holding the dog responsible – either through a classic correction or through a round of crate deprivation – will not solve the problem if the handler’s actions are maintaining the incorrect behavior.
Sadly, deprivation training is both common and generally accepted in some dog sports with the justification that keeping dogs in a chronic state of deprivation is needed for high end performance dogs. Proponents argue that these dogs must receive all good things through work, lest they decide that work isn’t very interesting if any other options are available. If this is true, it is a rather sad commentary on the state of one’s training – the trainer is unable to make work interesting unless they actively deprive the dog of basic life requirements. Taken to an extreme, one wonders if a performance dog has any innate value at all beyond what it can do for another; much like a motorcycle that is well taken care of and highly regarded but without rights of its own.
I haven’t even touched on the other issues that deprivation is supposed to solve – distracted dogs (that are too immature or poorly prepared to work in a particular environment), stressed dogs (who cannot function for their safety concerns), high drive dogs (owners respond too slowly to communicate effectively), low drive dogs (owners don’t recognize that their dog is temperamentally unsuited for their sport), and bored dogs ( owner’s expectations of their dog far exceeds what they are able or willing to give in return). Yet…the dog is held responsible.
Teaching is the human’s responsibility; we lead the dog. Use of excessive deprivation specifically to create motivation is not a method I'm comfortable with, since it appears to abdicate your responsibility to train well - at the dog’s expense. Dogs do not need to live in crates or kennels to want to work with you. They can live normal lives, eat normal quantities of food, and get normal amounts of exercise. Your dog will still look forward to training because you can make training fun.
This essay is not about solving your training problems – I haven’t given you solutions to a dog that either cannot or will not work for you. But I’ve suggested the place where you might want to start looking for answers – within yourself.