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Does punishment work?

The short answer is yes, punishment does work, but at what cost?

In this blog I will explore what punishment is, what it is in regards to training your dog, and the unforeseen consequences of using it.

What is punishment really?

You may have heard of the phrase 'positive reinforcement' (+R), especially in reference to dog training. It describes the 'modern style' of dog training which bases all of it's methods on what is currently known through scientific research about dog emotion, behaviour and how dogs learn. The goal of positive training is to create strong human-canine relationships based on both trust and respect. Gone are the 'traditional' days of pack leader, being your dog's master or dominating dogs into submission. Instead now we form working partnerships with our canine companions, with an emphasis on choice, motivation and payment for desired behaviours.

Positive, however, doesn't refer to the emotive sense of the word, but instead to the scientific sense. Positive, means to add, rather than negative, which means to take away. +P, is in fact, just one of four quadrants of B.F. Skinner's theory of 'operant conditioning'.

Therefore in training, +R means to add something desirable for your dog in order to increase the likelihood of a behaviour occurring more in the future. E.g. if you teach your dog to sit with a food reward (and they enjoy that reward), you are positively reinforcing the behaviour that you would like to see more of going forward.

It is, however, worth distinguishing the difference between 'positive punishment' (+P) and 'negative punishment' (-P), because these quadrants are very different in meaning and how they are used in training.

+P means to add something aversive/ undesirable in order to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour occurring in the future. E.g. applying a kick to your dog's ribs every time they jump up at you (we absolutely do not condone this at all!) -P, however, means to take something desirable away from your dog in order to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour from happening in the future. E.g. your dog jumps up at you and you turn away whilst withholding any attention until they stop. You can see from these two examples, working on the same behaviour, that one is far more ethical than the other, and one is far more likely to break down the trust in your relationship with your dog. Both kicking your dog and taking your attention away are forms of punishment, and both work, but which would you rather use?

It would be misleading to state that all +R trainers never use punishment at all. Even withholding a food reward when your dog does not perform a desired behaviour correctly is technically a punishment. Within the +R dog training field there is a wide spectrum of how far some trainers learn towards solely using +R methods, or how much they might also apply -P. The cardinal rule of +R training is that we never use anything but +R and -P. Here at Wanderdog, we like to consider that in all circumstances +R must be the first point of call. It is far better to teach a dog what we would like them to do, rather than focus on what we don't want them to do. E.g. continuing with our example of jumping up, instead of using any punishment to decrease this behaviour we could instead consider, 'what would I rather my dog does instead?' Now with this new state of mind, wouldn't it be nicer if our dog would sit rather than jump? If you positively reward your dog for sitting rather than jumping, you make this behaviour more likely to occur in the future. It is physically impossible for your dog to jump up if they are sitting.

The best way to deal with any unwanted behaviours is to either manage the situation so they cannot practice the undesirable behaviour (baby gates or parking your dog on lead to prevent jumping up), or, you train a behaviour incompatible with the current undesired behaviour (train a sit). Often is it best to manage from the get go, while you positively train a new behaviour. However, for some management may be enough to solve an issue.

How easy is it to get punishment right with dogs?

Police dog trainer, Steve White, provides us with the '8 rules of punishment'. These 8 rules must all be in place and done precisely for any punishment to work safely:

1. The punishment must be something the animal dislikes and something the animal does not expect. 2. The punishment must suppress behaviour. (This is, in fact, the very definition of something that is a punisher.) If something is being used for punishment, but it does not suppress behaviour, it is ineffective and often just plain abuse. 3. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much and there will be negative fallout. You end up hurting your relationship with the animal and loosing more than just that behaviour. Too little and the punishment will only serve to desensitise the animal and build resistance. 4. The punishment must happen immediately after the behaviour it is to be associated with. Otherwise, a clear enough association between the wrong behaviour and the punishment will not be made. 5. The punishment must be associated with the behaviour, but not with the trainer. Otherwise, the trainer becomes part of the punishment and the animal starts fearing and disliking the trainer. 6. The punishment must happen every time the behaviour occurs. If punishment does not happen every time the behaviour occurs, the behaviour gets put on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Depending on the behaviour and how often the punishment actually occurs, the animal could decide that performing the behaviour was worth the risk of getting punished. 7. There must be an alternative for the animal. 8. Punishment must never be used to the extent that punishment outweighs positive reinforcement (from the animal's perspective, not yours!)

With these rules in mind, do you think you could ever get punishment completely right without causing either confusion for your dog, or breaking down your relationship with them?

Is it worth the risk?

As mentioned in the rules, punishment by definition is used to suppress behaviour. The problem with suppressing behaviour is that you may produce either of the following negative outcomes:

1. You suppress behaviour which causes anxiety or fear for your dog as a result, and subsequently you will begin to see new behaviours that you didn't want. E.g. you use an e-collar to fix barking as your front door is knocked. This aversive shock that occurs each time you dog very naturally alert barks, causes a new source of anxiety for them. This anxiety could well lead to a new unwanted behaviour of reactivity towards guests coming into the home as they start to associate the scary stimulus with the consequence of people knocking and coming through the door.

2. You suppress behaviour through punishment and your dog begins to fear the punishment (and possibly you too), but when they are given no alternative behaviour to perform instead, they may believe there is no way to escape the punishment. This will subsequently lead your dog to to 'shut down'. For the untrained eye, this behaviour can be mistaken for what some incorrectly consider to be 'calm submissiveness', and will look like your dog is coping by doing absolutely nothing. However, 'shutting down' is a psychologically damaging high level of stress for your dog.

Neither of these results are what any caring guardian wishes for their dog. So we argue that the risk of using punishment is indeed not worth it.

So does punishing our dogs ever work?

Essentially, it is true that using punishment will produce results. +P especially will have very quick and seemingly effective results, but quick fixes rarely stick. Punishment works by suppressing behaviour not by fixing the cause or providing an alternative behaviour for your dog to do instead. Outwardly it will look as if your problem has been solved, and sadly for many guardians this will be positively rewarding enough for them to continue using it. However, as you can see from above it is far too difficult to get right with dogs. There is too much potential for unintended outcomes or negative psychological effects. By using +R, managing your dog's environment, and training an alternative behaviour that is incompatible with the undesired behaviour, you know that there is far less chance of ruining your relationship with them, or causing your dog any unnecessary stress.

+R training might not have the same immediate results, especially when it comes to behaviour modification. When dealing with 'problem behaviours', finding and solving an underlying cause will take more thought and consideration. However, +R is scientifically proven to gain longer lasting results, so....

why use punishment, when you can train better and more effectively with kindness?

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