What Is Punishment?
We can go on and on about the costs and benefits of punishing a dog or using punishment in dog training (or anything else for that matter), but for now we will simply define punishment and try to take the ugliness out of the word. Punishment itself is not bad. It does not cause harm, and it is not the worst thing in training as some would have you believe. Misused, punishment can be downright abusive! Make no mistake, however, that punishment can be misused, often in the name of humane training, and that can lead to fallout behaviors and abuse.
Definition of punishment: (n). A consequence that the subject wishes to avoid. That’s it.
There are really two ways to apply punishment: withholding or adding a stimulus. Withholding is called negative punishment. Negative in this case, means to remove; not meaning bad. People use this type of punishment whenever they withhold attention from a jumping dog, stop play with a biting puppy, don’t give the treat for a slow sit, end a game or training session even though the dog is performing well, etc. All of those examples are punishments for the dog.
Adding a stimulus for punishment is what most people think of when they think of punishment. This is referred to as positive punishment. Positive in this case means to add or apply — not necessarily good. People use this type of punishment with the obvious addition of a shock with a training collar, a leash jerk for pulling, or the less obvious but more common, application of mental force or pressure through reprimands or space taking.
What is the purpose of using punishment? To end the behavior and prevent it from recurring in the future.
Here is a basic rule: use a punishment three times. Three times ever — not three times in a row. If it does not end the behavior, stop using it. Now you are bordering on misuse of a punishment; and depending on the dog and the punishment being used, you may have to deal with fallout behavior or any of the following:
- A fearful dog. This dog may look comfortable and seem fine in all obvious ways, but when you ask them to do something they are unsure of, they freeze or urinate or do some other obvious expression of fear. This dog is afraid of making a mistake and being punished. This dog has not associated the punishment with the specific behavior you are trying to end but is instead afraid of doing anything unknown.
- A stressed dog. This dog may whine or bark or show some other hyperactive behavior, or they may displace their stress by sniffing the ground or scratching a non-itch or even yawning and shaking off. None of these behaviors are necessarily concerning in itself, but this dog is stressed and does not understand what they are supposed to do, just that there may be a consequence to doing something, so they do anything else. This dog may also make wrong associations as a result of poorly planned punishers: you punish the dog for barking at people and hope the dog has learned not to bark. Instead, the dog associates the punishment with the people and now hates people. He may not bark at them, but he sure as hell might bite them.
- Nothing. The dog may be totally fine. Some dogs are real gems and quickly forgive and forget or are simply too confident and stable to be shaken. Do not assume you have this type of dog. There is also a chance that the punishment you chose did not actually phase the dog one bit so it did not actually punish the behavior or the dog.
Many people use a punisher many, many times and assume it is working because it ends the behavior in the moment. That is not a successful punishment. A successful punishment reduces the rate of the behavior reoccurring in the future. What you are doing is interrupting the current behavior, which is very useful and often necessary, but don’t assume your dog has learned not to do it in the future or knows better next time. Accept that you interrupted the behavior in the moment and that you should probably train when you get a chance. If you truly punished the behavior, it would not reoccur.
What does this really boil down to? Too many people misuse punishers in the name of positive training or in the name of being humane. It’s important to understand what and how you are using reinforcement and punishment when working with a dog and that the dog generally decides what is rewarding and what is prohibitive; not you and not the trainer. However, a good trainer should be able to help you figure out what your dog loves and hates. Punishment itself is not inherently bad, but misusing or overusing a punisher (even a mild one like verbal corrections) is not beneficial to you or your dog.
If you are considering punishing or ending a behavior, work with a trainer to determine the best and most humane way to accomplish that goal if you can. You should also consider whether there are other options (like retraining a weak behavior or training a oppositional behavior) since often it is easier to teach a dog what they should do as opposed to what not to do (you leave too many decisions and options open for the dog).
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator