Punishment: It’s in the amygdala of the beholder

This post is part of the Never Shock A Puppy campaign for Be The Change For  Animals

Punishment is any consequence that increases the likelihood that the behavior preceding or accompanying it, will decrease. It’s been the foundation of modern dog training for decades. Dog pulls on leash, make pulling so unpleasant that the dog stops. Dog lunges at strangers or other dogs, yank, yell at, shock or hit the dog (hard enough) and they may stop lunging at strangers. For punishment to be a training technique it must have the affect of preventing the undesired behavior from occurring in the future. If a particular punishment doesn’t work after a couple of applications, it’s not working as a training technique and amounts to what some would consider abuse or in its most benign form, nagging. Some skilled trainers understand the use, benefits and pitfalls of using punishment to train dogs. Few pet owners do. No offense to anyone out there, but it’s true.

One thing that punishment can do well is suppress behaviors. The trouble is that many dogs are punished for something that seems perfectly obvious to their handler, but is not to the dog. No behavior happen in a vacuum. A dog that is shouted at for pooping in the house, even while they are pooping, can look for all intents to understand that they are not suppose to poop on the rug, in response to being shouted at. However there are dogs who after being reprimanded by their owners for pooping inside, become reluctant to poop anywhere when their owners are present. The dog did not understand that the problem was pooping inside. Some pet owners complain about dogs that can go for an hour long walk, do nothing, and then come home and poop behind the couch. Ooops.

When working with fearful dogs, who are already sensitive to what goes on in their world, even doing something that is only mildly startling can cause problems with their rehabilitation. Punishment does not have to hurt or scare a dog in order to be effective, but it does have to be aversive enough so that the behavior is affected and herein lies the rub, it’s not always easy to know how much is enough and how much may be too much. It’s risky, and it would be one thing to take that risk if it was the only option available to us as both trainers and pet owners, but it isn’t. Not only are there alternatives to using punishment to change behaviors, more and more studies show that these alternatives can be as or more effective. Animals learn skills faster when they are rewarded for doing the right thing as opposed to being punished for doing the wrong thing.

It is not just the punishment itself that can have negative fallout when it comes to training dogs. The threat of punishment and its accompanying dread can affect how or if a dog learns new behaviors.

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15 comments so far

  1. Stacy Braslau-Schneck on

    This is a great article, but… The first sentence, “increases the likelihood that the behavior preceding or accompanying it, will decrease”, is one of the most unclear ones I’ve read in a while!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Stacy, I’ll work on it, got any suggestions? I’m open!

      • Stacy Braslau-Schneck on

        How about, “Punishment is any consequence that decreases the likelihood that the behavior preceding it will repeat”?

      • Debbie on

        Works for me!

        Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  2. Kristin on

    Hello, I have a question about my fearful dog i’m not sure who else to ask! My dog is the best dog until she meets a stranger. She loves to play with other dogs, my cat and my aunts horse. She is very loving and affectionate to me and everyone who knows her, she gives endless kisses and hugs all day long. Once she sees the neighbor or we go out to petsmart to buy her a cookie she goes crazy and barks and will sometimes jump at people. She has never bitten anyone nor has she tried. the vet tech said she is very fearful and even pee’d when they gave her shots(because the vet tech held her). It makes me feel so bad because everyone sees this scared mean dog but i wish they could really see how she is. She was never abused i had her since she was 3weeks old(the owner was tossing all 10puppies outside at 3weeks old) She’s a German Shepherd/Chow mix she just turned 1 year old on June 20,2010. I love my dog and i don’t want to see her suffer when she sees someone she doesn’t know. Please any info would be greatly appreciated!

    • fearfuldogs on

      If you go to http://www.fearfuldogs.com you’ll find a website full of ideas for helping a dog like this. One thing I would suggest and that is that you do not put the dog in situations in which she can practice this inappropriate behavior. Dogs get better at behaviors they get to practice, even if we don’t like them. It may mean that you don’t bring her into petshops or to other places where there are people until you have given her the skills for encountering them. What we often don’t realize is that the dog’s visible, negative reaction to someone/thing is not necessarily when they started feeling scared. I’d guess that because your dog is afraid of strangers that she starts to feel afraid, anxious or stressed as soon as she realizes she’s going somewhere there ‘might’ be people. This is not a fun way to live. What we want for our dogs may not be what they would choose for themselves. Since they can’t talk to us all we can do is observe their behavior and figure out what it is telling us.

      You should get your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. melfr99 on

    Amen! Hear! Hear!

    Love this post (and the awesome title!) Deb. I agree that most pet owners don’t understand punishment. Which makes it all the more scary sometimes.

    I have been working with Henry, my dog client, on his fear-aggression issues with other dogs and seemed to have hit upon a solution for us. Touch. He knows that when he touches my hand he gets a treat. Did I mention he is treat-motivated? In the past when Henry saw a dog, a skateboarder, biker or kids running he would lunge and bark. Now, when I see he is about to go off, I say “Touch!” and he comes running to me and touches my hand. It has worked so effectively, that I think we may be able to wean him off the treats soon! See? Punishment not necessary!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Cool. Targeting is one of the most versatile skills to teach any dog, but especially a scared dog.

  4. Deborah Flick on

    I love this! I especially like your point that if a punishment doesn’t work after one or two tries, if the undesired behavior is not reduced or eliminated, then you are no long training your dog, your abusing her, or nagging at best.

    I’m going to share this post on Facebook!

  5. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Great post! I’d also like to respond to Kristin – we have a dog with much the same reaction to strangers as yours. One way we’ve helped him is to never let a stranger approach him or try to pet him. It may sound crazy, but because he now knows that he is not expected to interact with any strangers he’s becoming more comfortable around them. Because the general public is not very knowledgeable about the appropriate way to meet a strange dog, we’ve gotten Ty a vest with a patch that says “Please don’t pet me, I’m working.” It has been really helpful in our training because it makes strangers more predictable – meaning they tend to keep their hands to themselves. It’s only part of the process, but it is helping us.

  6. Jaqi on

    Great stuff as always… Couldn’t have written it better myself! ;op

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Jaqi! Go ahead and write it yourself, the more voices in the choir the better!

  7. Donna in VA on

    Can I chime in and say that I think people stop rewarding too soon, because they think the dog is “trained”. Why ever stop? I continue to reward for all the important stuff – like outside poops and good behavior around strange dogs. Rewarding is such a powerful tool, but people think they can stop doing it. I know obedience trainers talk about phasing treats out, but I assume that is for competition (no treats in the obedience ring.)

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think you are right on Donna. I also always reward my dogs for any behavior I like or cue. The rewards may vary. Good recalls in distracting environments almost always earn them a food treat. A sit at the gate gets the gate to open, a check in with me on the trails gets them a ‘good dog!’ and hand signal to keep on running and sniffing.

      It is true that most people assume that because the dog can perform the behavior in one environment or has performed it one or two times under different conditions that the dog ‘knows’ it in any situation, when that may not be the case at all.


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