Punishment in Dog Training

A series of articles for professional dog trainers, those who want to become professional dog trainers, and those who want to become certified dog trainers.

When we become a professional dog trainer, we need to take the emotional baggage out of the word “punishment.” Punishment is simply the procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that reduce the strength of that behavior. (Chance, Learning & Behavior, 5th ed., pg 454.) As we become more fluent in the use of behavioral terminology, these words become less emotionally laden and more useful. We may choose not to use the terms with our clients, but there is no reason not to use them with our peers.

Just as reinforcement is necessary for our survival, so is punishment. When we do something which has the potential to cause us harm, we need to get feedback so we will be less likely to do that behavior in the future.

As with reinforcement, the process of punishment will involve either adding or removing something from the environment. So, if something is added to the environment which reduces behavior it is considered positive punishment, and if something is removed from the environment which reduces behavior, it is considered negative punishment. The process is the adding or removing of stimuli and the effect is the decrease in likelihood of future behavior.

In the article on Operant Learning we discussed the operant matrix and the process and effect of stimuli, as well as the humane hierarchy. Here is a quick reminder as it relates to punishment:

  • Positive Punishment (P+) – The dog is spanked for getting in the garbage; the dog’s frequency of getting in the garbage decreases
    • Pain was added (positive) to the environment and the scavenging behavior decreased (punishment)
  • Negative Punishment (P-) – The dog paws at the owner and the owner gets up and walks out of the room; the dog’s pawing behavior decreases
    • The owner was removed (negative) from the environment and the dog’s pawing behavior decreased (punishment)

Negative punishment falls in the second-to-last tier of the humane hierarch and positive punishment falls at the very last tier of the hierarchy. Most reinforcement-based trainers do use some negative punishment in the form of time outs. Positive reinforcement and negative punishment in combination can be quite effective; however, as we grow in our understanding of behavior and learning, we should try to replace negative punishment operations with positive reinforcement operations and we’ll discuss some ways to do this in a future article.

The use of punishment is a tricky proposition. This is going to get a bit complicated, so please take the time to follow the logic. Here’s what we know:

Punishment can reduce behavior quickly

  • Reinforcers maintain behavior
  • Variable reinforcement schedules create stronger behavior
  • Variable reinforcement schedules create behaviors that are resistant to extinction

Let’s apply this knowledge to the use of punishment. Punishment can reduce behavior very quickly; therefore, it is reinforcing to the punisher. So, if we are reinforced for punishing, we are likely to continue punishing. However, if we don’t replace the function (or reinforcer) of the behavior we are punishing, it’s likely that the behavior will recur. It will probably come back and, because we were reinforced for punishing that behavior originally (it stopped at the time it was punished), we will punish it again. If the consequences of using punishment are on a variable reinforcement schedule (i.e., sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t), that may actually create a stronger behavior of punishing.

So why do we care? Why does it matter whether or not we use punishment? Well, we care because research has shown that there can be unintended consequences that may be detrimental to the animal’s well-being. There has been extensive research on punishment and the potential problems are escape, aggression, apathy, abuse and imitation of the punisher (Sidman, 1989b). We cannot predict how an animal will react to punishment – every animal behaves according to their prior learning history and genetic make up. Therefore, it behooves us and the animals we are responsible for helping to err on the side of caution. If we, as certified dog trainers, can use positive reinforcement, we should. And, as we grow in our understanding of behavior and learning, we should try to replace punishment-based operations with positive reinforcement-based operations; we’ll discuss some ways to do this in a future article.

As with reinforcement procedures, there are variables that can affect punishment procedures. These variables are:

  • Contingency – the punishment must have a relationship to the behavior and the animal must associate the two events.
  • Contiguity – the closer in time between the behavior and the punishment, the more likely the animal is to relate the punishment to the behavior. The exception to this is taste aversion, where the reaction to what was ingested can happen quite some time after it was actually eaten – and if look at this from a survival point of view, it makes sense.
  • Intensity – the more intense the punishment, the more effect it will have on the behavior. This can be very important when the behavior is first punished. Humans have a tendency to start with a mild punishment and then increase the intensity when we don’t get the results we want. However, this can result in what Jean Donaldson calls a “punishment callous,” where the animal develops a resistance to the punishment.
  • Reinforcement qualities of the behavior – the punishment must be more punishing than the reinforcement the animal receives for performing the behavior is reinforcing. Remember that behavior is maintained through reinforcement, so whatever behavior is being punished must have some reinforcer maintaining the behavior.
  • Alternative means of being reinforced – this is similar to the above condition in that, if the animal can find another way to receive the reinforcement it has been receiving for the behavior being punished, it is likely to take that alternative reinforcer.
  • Deprivation level – if the animal is deprived of the reinforcer maintaining the behavior, the punishment will not be as effective. I.e., if an animal is very hungry, but is being shocked for accessing available food, he’s more likely to ignore the shock than if he is not hungry.

These are the main points we, as professional dog training consultants, should know about punishment. The biggest take-away from all this is that there is the potential to do harm through the use of punishment. Therefore, as responsible trainers and consultants, we should learn how to use positive reinforcement to replace undesired behaviors rather than relying on punishment to decrease undesired behaviors.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.