Should Owners and Trainers Avoid Punishing Dogs?
“How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.” — The Monks of New Skete, How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend.
Two Forms of Punishment: Positive and Negative
In the behavioral science world, punishment comes in two forms: positive and negative. But they aren’t what you might think. Positive punishment is simply defined as something added which decreases the frequency of a behavior. Negative punishment is defined as something subtracted (or taken away) which has the same effect. In this model an electric shock would be a positive punisher for barking (it decreases the frequency of the barking) while ignoring the dog would be a negative punisher.
This can be a bit difficult to understand for some, if not most, dog owners.
Another problem with positive punishment is that while it might reduce the frequency of unwanted behavior, it doesn’t provide any information or instruction to the dog on how to make more appropriate behaviors. B.F. Skinner said that punishers aren’t effective in the long run because once the punishment is withdrawn, the behavior is very likely to return. So it’s better to teach a dog how to behave rather than how not to.
Verbal vs. Physical
Just as with corrections, there are two forms of positive punishment: verbal and physical.
A verbal punishment would be scolding or yelling at the dog.
“Knock it off!”
“Don’t even think about it!”
While scolding a dog isn’t as bad as hitting is, it does tend to create feelings of fear and, in some cases, anxiety in dogs. And that’s the problem with all forms of punishment: they work by causing fear.
As for the various forms of physical punishment these would include using a shock collar, pinching the dog’s ear, throwing him on his back, hitting the dog, and worse.
Dogs and Kids, Alike and Not Alike
Just as spanking a child tends to increase, not decrease, that child’s aggressive tendencies, physical punishment can have unhealthy effects on a dog’s behavior as well. That’s because punishment only works by engendering some form of fear.
Stanley Coren writes: “Spanking is the most common form of punishment used to control the behavior of human children. Based on data from nearly 2,500 children, Catherine Taylor and her associates at Tulane University report that children that were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5. ‘The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 increased by 50 percent if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began,’ said Taylor. Such negative effects of punishment have been reported so often in the scientific literature that the American Academy of Pediatrics has chosen not to endorse spanking under any circumstance.”
On her blog at PsychologyToday.com, Laura Markham writes: “Research shows that punishing kids creates more misbehavior. Being punished makes kids angry and defensive. It launches adrenaline and the other fight, flight or freeze hormones, and turns off the reasoning, cooperative impulses. Kids quickly forget the ‘bad’ behavior that led to their being punished, even while they’re processing the emotional aftermath of the punishment for weeks. If they learn anything, it’s to lie and avoid getting caught. ... Quite simply, punishment is never an effective means of raising a responsible, considerate, happy child. It teaches all the wrong lessons.
Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, says that “The reason a child will act unkindly or cause damage is always innocent.”
I think the same can and should be said for dogs.
Drawbacks, Reasons and Repercussions
The following comes from the Respect Your Dog website, an online source of much information (as well as misinformation) about positive training techniques. In the article quoted below the author discusses the drawbacks to using positive punishment as a way of curing resource guarding in dogs:
“[When] the human is successful in introducing enough discomfort/pain onto the dog, he’ll appear to stop guarding [and stop giving warning signals], and many will think the problem has been solved. Meanwhile, back in reality, the dog’s guarding behavior has not been removed at all, it has [just] been suppressed.”
The author then says that “Growling to protect a resource is a natural behavior. … When this behavior is suppressed enough times, the dog learns that it is no point in giving a warning signal. [So] the next time someone comes too close—for example a child—, the dog will bite without warning. Something humans often interpret as ‘the dog attacked without reason.’”
Of course, dogs never have “reasons” for what they do. They operate via feelings, emotions and impulses, not linear, rational thought processes. Knowing this may help owners understand that their misbehaving dog or puppy isn’t doing things “on purpose” to irritate or anger them.
One More Thing
I should also add that while positive punishments can actually cause behavioral problems in dogs, negative punishments—time outs and the like—are mostly ineffective.
Because dogs learn through a process called pattern recognition, not through associative learning. i.e,: “If a) I misbehave then b) my owner will put me in a time out until c) I’m a good boy.” And while pattern recognition is a much simpler, and more immediate process than associative learning, it’s much harder for a dog to put patterns together that don’t involve immediate-moment experiences. (This is why time outs sometimes work, but not for the reasons positive trainers think they do.)
So while children are, by a certain age, capable of understanding the differences between right and wrong, and the reason for being sent to their room or having their privileges taken away, dogs have no clue as to the “why” of such things.
That’s why I generally go by the rule that, if possible, it’s best to teach a dog what to do rather than what not to do.
Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”