Does Punishment Work? Part 2

As promised, the conversation as to if punishment works continues. Before I dive into the explanation and exploration of this topic, I want to make my position clear: I DO NOT ENCOURAGE OWNERS TO PUNISH THEIR DOGS. INSTEAD I ENCOURAGE PEOPLE TO LEARN HOW TO USE EFFECTIVE AND HUMANE METHODS TO GET TO THE SAME RESULTS.

I am writing about this important topic because I realize that people are punishing their dogs. What’s even more heartbreaking is that most people, and a large number of professionals, do not understand how to effectively apply punishment which also makes it even more cruel for the animal *(&^^)%$#.

I strongly suggest that if you are going to use punishment with your dog, you invest the time and energy to learn how to do so! And as you will see it is not that simple… The rendition below is based on the Science of Animal Learning. It is not speculation, wishful thinking, and bleeding-heart thinking. Instead, it is based on many, many studies and experimentations on animals and their learning. Some of these experiments were so unethical that they are not allowed to take place in the name of science anymore!

Conditions of Effective & more humane (?) – You decide Punishment:

Based on Dr. Pamela Read book: Excel-erated Learning
  • Punishment should be a learning tool and not a means of revenge. If your dog is not learning as a result of using fear, pain or intimidation then it is not really punishment it is callous revenge.
  • Punishment MUST be initially SEVERE. Let me say that again, PUNISHMENT MUST BE INITIALLY SEVERE. Yes, I know, all those shock related products advocate for starting “small” and increasing the shock or whatever mechanism is being used to inflict pain, discomfort etc. as needed. But what these manufactures do not understand (or fail to report – as the case might be) is that this is not how punishment works.

The rationale behind this is that punishment should be strong enough to create an impression on the dog. It hurts so much, scared so much that the dog chooses not to engage in “x” behavior for fear of being hurt again, etc.

In other words, the behavior we choose to modify has been suppressed.

Now, here is the rub: Very few individuals (yes, unfortunately they are quite a few cruel people out there :() will not have the stomach to really use severe punishment. And, even if the person really is trying to help the dog by applying this rule of learning, we are left with another practical and ethical conundrum: How strong is strong enough? How can we measure this?

If less severe tactics are employed, in the name of being humane, the problem is that the behavior will not be suppressed long-term.

Another interesting twist to this dilemma is the fact that some animals will adapt to pain… so here we have to crank the pain outlet even more. Ouch! Real ouch!

Thirdly, when an owner produces a mild punisher, the response as discussed above will be lukewarm but it might be present, which in turns reinforces the owner to continue to punish the dog. What a sad life for both of them…

The presentation of punishment should be timely. Any delay in this presentation will be ineffective.

Consequences must be presented immediately and as a consequence for behavior in order for a dog to learn to link these two events together. Again, failing on this will not only constitute lack of learning, (suppression of behavior) but frankly how unfair can this be! The dog has no idea why he is being mistreated. So in choosing a punisher, we must consider the immediacy of the delivery. This is at the crux of fair/correct use of punishment.

The punishment must happen EVERY-SINGLE-TIME-THE-DOG-ENGAGES-IN-THE-BEHAVIOR… good luck with that! Last time I checked people in general have such a difficult time being consistent with anything. To put this one differently: The more times the behavior is followed by a punisher, the less likely the behavior will occur – the dog has learned something.

The punisher is always part of the punishing process. It is very difficult to separate the pain, etc. from who is delivering the blow. So bad news for the owner because most likely the dog will become to associate him or her with pain, fear, etc. (This is, of course, thanks to classical conditioning or associative learning – one of the most powerful ways of learning for creatures).

The punishment rarely teaches the dog an alternative. I HATE this! So the animal is getting hurt but does not know what to do instead. Oh, how very wrong!! The moral of this one point is to make sure we give the dog an out. We teach her what she can do instead to save her skin from pain.

Last, a very real and cruel result of using aversives to teach animals is that it is quite possible to end up with an animal that does not “behave” because it has learned – if punishment is not elegantly applied, that behavior produces pain and there is no sure way of escaping it. What is even more troubling is that many owners want a dog that does not behave. The animal’s joie de vivre gone!

I sure hope that writing about this topic makes people think many, many times prior to taking the “easy” (easy for whom?) way out.

Remember: Before you expect your dog to learn something ASAP, be honest with yourself about how painstaking it is to learn new stuff or go about making meaningful long lasting changes to your behavior. As such, let’s hope that we practice empathy for our dog’s learning curves -especially when it comes to emotional issues (anxiety, fear) that are truly out of our dog’s control.