Does Punishment Work?

As a continuation from last week’s blog post about presenting consequences for dogs, I am addressing the use of punishment as a consequence. There is a lot of confusion about the definition of punishment as the term has different connotation in everyday parlance and the behavioral sciences.

The behavioral sciences define punishment as the presentation of an aversive. An aversive, just to refresh some folks’ memory, is the presentation of anything an animal wants to avoid.

As you can appreciate by this definition, an aversive – or punishment for that matter, is always in the eyes of the receiver. One might think that doing “x” or “z” as being a punisher, but if the receiving party does not find this aversive it will not constitute as a punishment. All things being equal, if someone presents a stimulus that they think is not punishing for the dog BUT the dog finds it aversive then guess what, it is a punisher!

Now, back to the discussion as if punishment works to change behavior. The second aspect of the definition of punishment (from the behavioral sciences perspective) is that the presentation of an aversive, what is referred to as positive punishment, and here it is important to clarify that it is not positive because it is “good” but it is positive because it is an additive that does suppress behavior. In other words, the presentation of an aversive will in turn diminishing the target behavior. This is an important clarification because in the world of training it has at times inaccurately stated by some proponents of positive reinforcement methods that punishment does not work. And this is not really the case. There are hundreds upon hundreds of experiments done on over 200 species of animals that confirm this finding.

Now, not just because punishment suppresses behavior does it mean that we should use it. And furthermore, if one chooses for whatever reasons succumb to the use of aversives in training it really behooves the individual to fully understand how to effectively and humanly as possible make use of them.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT condoning the use of aversives, period! However, I do not have my head in the sand either, since I know that people resort to aversives in training and dealing with animals on a regular basis. As a result of this, I strongly advocate for a clear theoretical as well as practical understanding of using such methodologies. In my next post I will address the conditions needed to exercise efficient punishers.

The reason that myself and many other very effective trainers do not use punishment as our go to in training is because THERE IS NO NEED TO DO SO! Indeed, we have at our disposal tremendous humane and EFFICIENT tools to teach pretty much anything our hearts desire to our dogs.

Punishment always has consequences beyond diminishing behavior. These consequences are fallouts of the methodology. As stated earlier, aversives are stimuli the animal wants to avoid. They are undesirable, fear producing events.

As you can imagine any animal that is submitted to this type of learning on a regular basis must be under distress. Distress is never conducive to learning – what’s more, it gets in the way of learning, so here is another vital reason why using aversives is not my cup of tea.

The environment is always teaching animals what to avoid. It boils down to surviving.

So as you can appreciate, it is not realistic or practical to remove all aversives from the life of our dogs, children, spouse, etc. etc. But what it is possible is the possibility of making a personal choice as to how we want to teach and treat our dogs.

Teaching without inflicting fear or pain is not only humane because it is less threatening to our animals, it is also humane because it forces us to take the high road by exercising exquisite self-control when we are frustrated with our dog’s behavior.

Instead of blaming the dog and taking it out on the dog, the high road requires that we look at ourselves critically in an effort to learn how to become better teachers as well as to practice empathy for our learner.