Let’s talk about: punishment. Today we’re going to discuss what punishment is, some misconceptions about punishment, as well as if and when punishment should have a place in our training.
What is punishment?
Dictionary definitions of punishment include things like “a penalty inflicted as retribution for an offence” and “rough treatment or handling.” If you ask the average person what punishing a dog might look like, they may respond with examples such as scolding, yelling at or even hitting a dog when they do the wrong thing. For many people, punishment is about discipline – teaching a dog boundaries; what is or isn’t acceptable behaviour.
In behavioural science circles, the definition of punishment is slightly different – a “punisher” is anything which results in the behaviour being LESS likely to occur again. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly you yell at your dog for jumping on the sofa – if they continue to jump on the sofa just as often as they did before, you haven’t punished the behaviour. It also means you can punish a behaviour without even meaning to – for example, if you stop rewarding your dog when you recall them and find your recall starts to deteriorate, then you’ve successfully punished the recall behaviour.
Examples of Punishment in Training
There are two ways that punishment can occur when training our dogs – either by removing/withholding something the dog wants or by adding something the dog dislikes. Some examples of punishment include:
Adding something unpleasant…
Fido loves to jump up at people when they walk through the front door. To stop Fido from doing this, his human decides to use a rattle can – this is a tin full of pebbles that makes a very loud and startling noise when thrown. When his human next walks in the door, they throw the can down as Fido jumps up so that it clatters loudly – this frightens the life out of Fido. Next time his human gets home, Fido stays in his bed and doesn’t run to greet them. The human has punished Fido’s jumping up behaviour by adding a scary sound.
Removing something pleasant…
Fido loves to jump up at people when they walk through the front door. In the past, people have often made a fuss of Fido when he does this! In an effort to teach him not to do this anymore, his human decides to withhold attention by turning away or even walking out of the door again when he jumps up. After a while of practicing this, Fido jumps up less often and tends to “give up” more quickly. Fido’s owner has punished the jumping up behaviour by removing the attention Fido is trying to access.
Do We Need to Use Punishment in Training?
As we’ve mentioned above, many people view punishment as a necessary part of disciplining our pets and teaching them what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. However, do we really need to punish our dogs to do this? The answer is a resounding “no,” and here’s why:
It’s inefficient: while Fido’s jumping behaviour did lessen over time as a result of his human turning away from him, it was a very slow process and Fido still sometimes jumps up and isn’t sure what he should do instead.
It can cause frustration and new problems: when Fido’s owner started turning away from him when he jumped up, he started to feel frustration that because the rules had changed and he didn’t know what to do instead. Fido tried jumping up even MORE to begin with, he tried barking and he even tried mouthing and grabbing at his human’s clothes and limbs to try to get their attention. He now jumps up less but he does bark more!
It’s incredibly hard to get it “right”: one of the biggest risks with punishment is what our dogs are going to associate that punishment with. If we punish an unwanted behaviour by adding something unpleasant, our dogs may associate it with something else in the environment. For example, my cat once swiped at my dog through a baby gate when he was pestering him – my dog initially associated this event with the baby gate, not the cat! When Fido’s owner threw the rattle can on the floor, there was no way for Fido to know that this happened BECAUSE he jumped up. Fido now totally avoids entering the hallway at all and his human has to try to coax him through or leave through the back door when it’s time for Fido’s walk.
It's unkind and damages our relationship with our dogs: communicating with our dogs primarily through punishment, particularly by adding something unpleasant, is an inherently bad experience for our dogs. Studies have shown that dogs trained with punishment-based training methods show more signs of stress and anxiety and are less confident – they are more likely to exhibit avoidance-type behaviour or “appeasement signals” (body language designed to avoid conflict, our dogs’ way of saying “please don’t get cross with me!”).
It can reduce learning: as we’ve just discussed, dogs trained with punishment-based techniques tend to be more anxious and less confident – anxiety and stress make it harder for our dogs to learn, and dogs lacking confidence are less likely to offer behaviours at all. Take the example of Fido staying in his bed after his experience with the rattle can – how can his human teach him to approach and greet politely if he is too worried to even enter the hallway at all?
What Can We Do Instead?
In training, the opposite of “punishment” is “reinforcement.” Reinforcement is anything that makes a behaviour MORE likely to occur again in the future! This is how we teach our dog what we would like them to do instead of an unwanted behaviour and build good habits in our pups! Just like with punishment, there are two ways to reinforce behaviours – by adding something our dogs want or by taking away something our dogs dislike.
Adding something pleasant…
Fido loves to jump up at people when they walk through the front door. His human would like him to approach with his feet on the floor, instead! They set up a baby gate in the doorway to the hall, so Fido can’t practice jumping up as soon as they walk in. When they arrive home, they wait on their side of the gate and ask Fido for a “sit” – as soon as he does, they say “good!” and lean over to give him a fuss. After a few repetitions, Fido knows that the quickest way to access the attention he’s hoping for is to offer a “sit!” It’s not long before this becomes a habit for Fido and his human can remove the baby gate entirely. Fido’s human has successfully reinforced the “sit” behaviour by giving Fido attention when he does it!
Removing something unpleasant…
Recently, Fido has been pulling on the lead a lot on his walks. His human decides to purchase a head collar for him – this head collar sits on the sensitive part of Fido’s face and creates pressure whenever he pulls. When Fido slows down and stops pulling, the pressure goes away. Fido stops pulling when wearing the head collar – Fido walking on a loose lead has been reinforced by the removal of the unpleasant pressure on his face.
What Type of Reinforcement is Best?
Positive reinforcement, which is the one where we add something pleasant, is the best type of reinforcement! Reinforcing behaviour by removing something the dog doesn’t like, such as the pressure from a head collar in the example above, means we are causing our dog to feel uncomfortable (emotionally or physically) or even pain in order to coerce them to perform a behaviour for us. This isn’t a nice way to train! It’s much better if we can set our dogs up to be successful, make it as easy as possible for them to get it “right” and reward them with something nice! This is the best way to create a confident, engaged, willing and enthusiastic dog who WANTS to do the same things we’d like them to do!
Benefits of Reinforcement in Training
It’s efficient: particularly when we take the time to arrange the environment to set our dogs up for success, training with reward-based techniques is REALLY quick! Fido’s human setting up a baby gate so he didn’t continue to practice the unwanted behaviour made it much easier for him to listen and offer a “sit” when he was asked for it. This meant Fido’s owner was able to start getting successful repetitions from the very first session!
It builds confidence: because Fido didn’t have to worry about any unpleasant consequences, he had the confidence to try offering the right behaviour! After a few repetitions of walking in the front door and asking him to sit, Fido realised his human walking in the front door predicted the “sit for attention” scenario – so when his human walked in, he started offering a sit without even being asked! The confidence to guess the right answer sped up the training process and resulted in a confident dog who chose to offer the behaviour his human was looking for!
It's kinder: training is all about motivating our dogs – Fido can either pull on the lead to get to that interesting sniffy spot or he can walk next to his human to get that yummy treat. We could motivate our dogs by using something unpleasant that they’re motivated to avoid, such as avoiding us because we yell at them or avoiding pulling because it hurts their face – but who wants to motivate their dogs with fear and pain?
It improves our relationship!: using positive reinforcement build neural pathways in our dogs brain, associating us and the behaviours we like to see with good things! Teaching our dogs that walking near us, offering calm behaviour when we walk in the door etc pays off with good things like treats or attention is a brilliant life lesson for them to learn! Everyone gets a dog wanting a trusty companion to share their life with – surely we want them to associate us with the good stuff, not the bad?!
It's easier!: Instead of having to suffer through our dogs doing the things we don’t want them to do – such as jump up at us or pull on the lead – and then acting to punish them, we can instead set our dogs up for success and spend our time together simply rewarding them for those good choices. Think about the example above where Fido was jumping up at his human – popping a barrier up and showing him what to do instead of jumping meant his human didn’t have to deal with any more jumping up and the whole process was nicer for everyone (dog and human)! There’s no need to get into a battle of wills or physical fight with our dogs over behaviours when we can use our big brains to plan ahead and make life much easier for everyone!
To learn more and start training life skills such as recall, lead walking, impulse control, manners around the house and much more with positive reinforcement, get booked into classes now