The Fall-outs of Using Positive Punishment

In the scientific literature physical and verbal punishment is known as positive punishment. Here positive does not mean good, but rather the addition of a negative action/experience (force, fear or pain) towards the dog. We know that according to science, that correctly using positive punishment works. But the home environment is not a constantly supervised and controlled environment such as a laboratory. Because of that it is very difficult to apply positive punishment correctly and consistently in order for it to be successful in stopping unwanted behaviours.

There are so many criteria that needs to be followed when implementing physical or verbal punishment, that it is virtually impossible to adhere to them all in a normal household situation. There are far more rules for implementing positive punishment as there is for positive reinforcement! If you forget a criteria when using positive reinforcement, the consequence is not nearly as dire as if you were to forget a criteria when using positive punishment!!

Using physical or verbal punishment is a resource for those owners who do not plan ahead or train. To train in a purely positive manner one must first make changes in your way of thinking, your belief system regarding training dogs and in yourself. Each time you use positive reinforcement you are building a positive and stronger relationship with your dog. Using physical or verbal punishment, just once, can set you back many of the gains you have made with your dog.

As difficult as it is for our human society today, physical punishment towards our dogs (and other animals) must be avoided. It absolutely destroys the relationship of trust between you and your dog, as most of the time it is not implement properly, there for it’s really confusing to the dog. See the explanation of “pseudo-guilt” lower down.

Using physical punishment can make your dog “hand shy” – which means he starts ducking his head away when you stretch your arm out towards him, even if it is to pet him. The next unsuspecting person that stretches out their hand to greet your dog might be greeted with snap, bite or a growl (if you’re lucky enough to get a warning signal). How does your dog know if the hand coming towards him is going to feel good or hurt?

Physical punishment also does not teach them what to do; it does not teach them an alternative, acceptable behaviour. You don’t just yell at your 5 yr old toddler – “don’t draw on the walls!!!”, you might say, “don’t draw on the walls; draw in your colour-in book or this paper”. You don’t leave him hanging around trying to figure out where he can draw – how many mistakes should he make, and get punished for it, before he figures out where he can draw. The same goes for dogs. Teach them what they SHOULD do, rather than just punishing the wrong behaviour.

The possibility of developing Avoidance Motivated Aggression is very possible. This means that the dog learns how to predict the aversive stimulus, which is the person that administered the punishment. Even just the presence or close proximity of this person could lead to the dog acting defensively as the dog is only employing strategies to avoid further punishment. Ever heard the myth “don’t get this or that breed, because they turn on their owners” – this is a more likely explanation for dogs attacking their owners.

When you use physical or verbal punishment you obtain a temporary suppression of the behaviour and it looks like the punishment worked. You have not taught an alternative behaviour or response, so the next time the dog is in the same context, he is going to respond the only why he knows how. Now punishment is handed out again, but this time an increase of force is needed to stop the behaviour, which is again just suppressed and so a vicious cycle is started.

Another problem is that the dog can associate the punishment with any other elements in the environment at the time of the punishment. For example: while on a walk you dog spots another dog in the distance and starts pulling towards him. You give a good few yanks on the choke chain to keep your dog at ‘heel’. Your dog could now associate pain with other dogs. The next time he sees other dogs his arousal levels goes up and becomes defensive / lunges / barks. Again you give him a few yanks to keep him quiet and in ‘heel’ position.  And so his reaction to other dogs worsen and you end up with a leash reactive dog that is unpleasant to take on walks.

Using physical punishment leads to problems in other areas too, most notably during training. Organisms gravitate to a place of reinforcement and avoids or tries to escape that which they are not comfortable with.

Research since 1911 by E.L. Thorndike (Law of Effect) & 1938 by B.J. Skinner (The Behaviour of Organisms) has shown that positive reinforcement has many more advantages and creates a more reliable and stronger behaviour. This should then be old news – so why then are there still so many trainers out there using severe positive punishment techniques?

Pseudo-guilt also known as “the dog knows what he has done”

When owners come home and see the dog has chewed an inappropriate object, urinated where he ‘should not have’ or has been digging, it is erroneously believed that the dog’s unacceptable behaviour is motivated by ‘spite’ (i.e. maybe for leaving him on his own) due to his appearance of “looking guilty”. This “guilty look” then confirms the owners belief that the behaviour was a intentional act. This “guilty” appearance also suggests to the owner that the dog ‘knows that he did something wrong’.

“This ‘guilty look’ is nothing but a ritualized submissive display aimed at avoiding the punishment that is to follow”.

(Borchelt and Voith, 1985). Pseudo-guilt (the “guilty look”) is maintained by association, namely:

  • Evidence of the destroyed object, hole or urination
  • The presence of the owner, and
  • A history of previous punishment under similar conditions in the past where the presence of the owner with the destruction, elimination or hole equals  physical or verbal punishment.

Last but not least, some people complain that using non-confrontational techniques sometimes takes longer. That may be true in some cases, and some instances a lot of creativity is needed to overcome a problem behaviour, but “So What!”. Does the saving of time justify the approach used?  Aren’t we supposed to be the more intelligent specie?

Taking aversive short cuts with behaviour modification or training will result in problems later down the road.

“The greatness of a nation and their moral progress can be judged by the way their animals are treated”  Gandhi

© Claire Grobbelaar