For both people and dogs, in fact all animals’ reinforcement is essential to our survival, we all do things that in the past have brought about food, water, approval and safety. It is how we all survive the perils of the world. We also survive when we learn what not to do, things that have brought about fear, pain and suffering. If you consider any injury you have had you will find that it was probably brought about by your behavior and you probably learned from it and will make efforts in the future to avoid that behavior. You are probably also acutely aware that most of the punishment inflicted upon you is from the hands of other people.

Most of us live in healthy happy environments and receive far more reinforcement from those we surround ourselves with, but for some life can be one punishing experience to another.  The world we live in is filled with aversive consequences in an attempt to suppress unwanted behavior and for many of our family pets who seek so desperately to gain our approval and win our love they live under the constant fear of punishment to the ignorance of their owners.

So what is punishment and how do many people use punishment to suppress their dog’s behavior? Something punishing as we described above is an event that takes place after a behavior that is likely to reduce the behavior in the future. The law of effect says that behavior is a function of its consequence. A punisher can be anything that reduces behavior, shouting, hitting, withholding something, such as a toy or affection. A punisher is something that your dog will seek to avoid or escape. However if the punisher is not reducing the behavior then it is not a punisher and sometimes things that we consider punishment may not actually be an aversive to our dog and vice-versa, things that we may consider a reward may actually be a punisher. The reward or punisher is determined by the person/dog receiving it and is defined by whether it is increasing or reducing the behavior.

There are two types of punishment, positive punishment and negative punishment. The positive and negative is a description as to whether something has been added to the event after the behavior. If you walk in a park at night and you are mugged, you are less likely to walk in the park again at night. Your behavior was punished; an aversive event happened it was added to the situation. If you drive to quickly and you are stopped by the police and you are fined, and as a result of the fine you drive more slowly in the future then your behavior has been negatively punished. Something has been subtracted from the situation, money. Negative punishment is also referred to as penalty training (Chance 2008).

Punishment is a simple concept; however the variables at play that will determine if the punishment is effective are very complicated if at all possible to implement effectively.  One essential variable to effective punishment is the contingency, how and to what degree is the punishing event dependant on the behavior. If a dog is doing something wrong and only gets punished sometimes then the dog will not relate their behavior to the punishment. In my opinion this is impossible for pet dog owners, they cannot get the consistency required for the punishment to be contingent on the behavior.  The second variable is the contiguity, the interval between the behavior and the punisher. How often are dogs punished after the fact and have no idea why they are being punished, in fact they relate the punishment to what they are doing at the exact moment they are punished. Most people cannot effectively apply punishment they either ignore the fact that in many cases the punishment was not contingent on the behavior and or the timing of the punishment was wrong leaving the animal bewildered and confused (Chance 2008).

It is also extremely difficult to determine at what intensity the punishment should be applied.  If the level of the punishment is wrong then the animal either receives too harsh a punishment or the punishment is sustained as the owner experiments with the intensity of the punishment in an attempt to get the desirable effect.

These are the reasons for unintentional abuse of our family pets.  Let look at a dog that is not housetrained and even though the owner is convinced they are addressing the problem and punishing the dog the house soiling continues. There is a high probability that the punishment is not contingent on the behavior. If the animal is soiling the house without the owner knowing then contingency is not effective or the animal is only being punished sometimes.  If the house soiling behavior is not punished immediately then there is not sufficient contiguity between the behavior and the punisher. As a result of this the owner will then increases the intensity of the punishment labeling the animal stubborn, spiteful or stupid. The animal then seeks to escape or avoid the punishment which results in a breakdown of trust and a feeling of safety and security around their owner.

So not only is punishment extremely difficult to apply it also has many unwanted side effects. Pet dog owners continue to punish their dogs because in the short term they see results, the application of the punishment is reinforcing to them so they punish again. The potential fallout of punishment is that the dog seeks to avoid or escape the punishment, behaviors such as escape, apathy and aggression (Chance 2008). Let’s look at each of these.  A dog can escape punishment without actually fleeing, they become experts at avoidance.  When dogs cannot escape or avoid punishment they become apathetic their general demeanor and behavior is suppressed. It is often safer to do nothing when you live in an environment where aversives are common place. Aggression is an alternative to escaping punishment. If the dog cannot escape the punishment or the punisher then they will resort to aggression, they will attack. Aggression can be redirected to a stationary object or something else not just the immediate threat.

Because punishment is so difficult to implement and it has so many unwanted side effects it is not a wise choice if you want to change the behavior of your companion animal. There are so many other choices such as response prevention, managing your dog’s environment so they cannot or choose not to engage in problem behaviors. Reinforcement training is a powerful alternative to punishment protocols. You teach your dog what you would like them to do rather than what not to do, remember how we all choose behaviors that result in pleasant, desirable or safe outcomes. The huge benefit and positive side effect of choosing more appropriate training and behavior change protocols is that your dog will actually  like you and I don’t know about you but I choose to have pets in my life so I can mutually enjoy and benefit from them being in my life and in them sharing mine.

If you need help with a problematic behavior then find a certified dog trainer who understands how best to help reduce unwanted behaviors without resorting to punishment. 

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