Written By Niki Tudge
Have you ever asked yourself “why do we do what we do?” All animals, including humans, demonstrate certain behaviors because they are reinforced in some way. In many cases this characteristic is essential to our survival and helps us secure the necessities of life such as food, water, approval and safety. Reinforcement for behaviors that lead to these essentials helps us survive the perils of the world. Learning what not to do also helps us survive and our brain teaches these lessons through fear, pain and suffering.
If you consider an injury you have had you will find that it may have been brought about by your behavior and you hopefully learned from it and will make efforts in the future to avoid similar behavior. You may also be aware that much of the punishment inflicted on you is external, from the hands of other people (Time-outs as a child, detention in High School, speeding tickets). Most of us live in healthy, happy environments and receive far more reinforcement than punishment from those around us. But for some, life can be one punishing experience after another. The world we live in is filled with aversive consequences that are imposed in an attempt to suppress unwanted behavior. Many family pets live under constant fear of punishment when they are desperately seeking the attention, approval and love from their family.
So what is punishment and how is punishment used to suppress a dog’s behavior? Punishment as described above is an event that takes place after a behavior AND 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 does not reduce the behavior then it stops being a punisher. 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 in the eyes of a dog. Whether something is a reward or a punisher will be 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’ describes 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 (of walking in the park) was punished; an aversive event occurred (the mugging) which was added to the situation. If you drive too quickly and you are stopped by the police and fined, you will drive more slowly in the future (theoretically). This is an example of your behavior being negatively punished. Something has been subtracted from the situation (the money you were fined). Negative punishment is also referred to as penalty training (Chance 2008).
Punishment is a simple concept. However, the variables that determine if the punishment is effective are very complicated, and perhaps impossible 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 some of the time, then the dog will not relate their behavior to the punishment. It is virtually impossible for pet dog owners to be 100% consistent and therefore they cannot get the consistency required for the punishment to be contingent on the behavior. The second variable is the contiguity which is the interval between the behavior and the punishment. Dogs are too often punished after (sometimes long after) an infraction and in their minds there is no connection between the punishment and the infraction, so they don’t know what they are being punished for. In fact they will associate the punishment to what they happen to be doing at the exact moment the punishment is received. 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 nearly impossible to determine at what intensity 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 for too long as the person applying the punishment experiments with the intensity of the punishment in an attempt to get the desirable effect.
This is why “punishment” so often results in unintentional abuse of family pets. Housetraining is an excellent case-in-point. Consider a dog that is not housetrained and even though the owner is convinced they are addressing the problem and punishing the dog correctly, 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 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 feelings of insecurity and fear when the dog is with its owner.
So not only is punishment extremely difficult to apply it also has many unwanted, and often unanticipated, side effects. Pet dog owners will sometimes continue to punish their dogs because in the short term they may see what appears to be a result. The application of the punishment is reinforcing to them (the owner) 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 can result (Chance 2008).
Let’s look at each of these. A dog can escape punishment without actually fleeing. The dog becomes an expert at avoidance. When dogs cannot escape or avoid punishment they become apathetic. Their general demeanor and behavior is suppressed. It is often safer for the dog to do nothing in an environment where aversive treatment is common place. Aggression is an alternative to escaping punishment. If the dog cannot escape the punishment or the punisher they will resort to aggression and attack. Aggression my not always be directed at the immediate threat and can be redirected to a stationary object or someone else.
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 including response prevention and managing a 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, we all tend to choose behaviors that result in pleasant, desirable or safe outcomes. The huge benefit and positive side effect of using more appropriate training and behavior change methods is that your dog will actually like, and not fear, you. I don’t know about you, but I choose to have pets in my life so I can enjoy and benefit from a mutually rewarding relationship where we share our life together.
Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth Cengage Learning