Petting Go: Should You Use a Squirt Bottle to Train Your Partner?

This week, we’ll take up a question posted on my Facebook page: Should you use a squirt bottle to train your partner?

There’s a short answer, and it’s no. But the long answer includes some handy tools for figuring out how to solve problems when you’re training your partner. In fact, it includes the whole, entire, complete super top secret of partner training. Betcha can’t wait.

Positive Reinforcement and Partner 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 partner 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 partner’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 partner likes the water spray and the spray makes him more likely to repeat the behavior you responded to with spraying. If your partner loves being sprayed, you have my blessing to use your squirt gun as a reward.


Do Spray Bottles Work in Partner Training?
Even when punishments work, they don’t teach your partner what you do want her to do.

For most partners, 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 partners 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 partner’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 partners, but if you’re spraying your partner 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 Partner is Not a Good Idea
What if the water spray does work – you do it once or twice and your partner 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 partners 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 partner is so sensitive to the spray that a couple of shots kill the behavior you want to kill, you risk teaching him or her to be afraid of the sprayer. Seriously, do you want your partner worrying every time you break out the plant mister? Worse yet, what if he or she learns to fear your hand and arm approaching her face?

And there you have it in a nutshell – why a thoughtful partner 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 partner from jumping up. On the one hand, even if your partner dislikes it, the odds are not great that it will work. So you’ve wound up doing something unpleasant to your partner and accomplishing exactly nothing.


Punishment Doesn’t Teach Your Partner What You Do Want
And you might have noticed that punishing your partner for doing whatever still hasn’t got the job done. What do you want your partner to do instead? Save time, energy, and unhappiness by teaching her that to begin with.

This leads us to the Mantra of Reward-Based partner Training: If your partner 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 partner training, right there. Figure out what you want your partner to do. Figure out how to set up the situation so that she naturally offers you that behavior. Then reward him or her generously. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If your partner loves that squirt bottle, then squirt her to your heart’s content. But otherwise, stick to misting the plants.