To Reward or To Punish

Owners generally have a very poor understanding of punishments and rewards. Some owners actually do more harm than good when punishing and rewarding their dogs. What you think of as punishment may be rewarding and what you think of as a reward may be punishing – from your dog’s perspective.

Worse, punishment of normal dog behaviors such as chewing and other destructive behaviors and/or house soiling, as examples, may be so stressful to your dog, especially if appropriate alternatives are not provided, that the dog may exhibit some form of anxiety, confusion and/or aggression.

Confused? You have every reason to be. There are trainers who call themselves positive trainers. They yank and pull on a dog’s collar and when the dog finally sits they say “good dog,” but this is NOT positive training.

From a scientific perspective reward and punishment have very specific meanings. To the average person, those words do not begin to convey what you need to know to apply either effectively, and, if you are not training effectively, you are not training smart.

What do you need to know about punishments and rewards in dog training?

Bonnie Beaver, BS, MS, DVM, Diplomate ACVB, (all those letters mean she is a very smart veterinary behaviorist) in her book, “The Veterinarian’s Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior,” describes punishment as:

. . . the use of a negative . . . to decrease the frequency of the behavior. To be effective, the punishment must be properly timed and consistent. It must also be of enough significance to be meaningful to the individual (my note: and no more).

Punishments include, but are not limited to, alpha rolls, ear pinches, hanging the dog from its collar for any reason, hitting, isolating, kneeing a dog in the chest for jumping, martingale collars, pinch and choke collars, poking or kicking the dog, shock collars, stepping on toes, and throw chains. A punishment is anything that your dog does not like and will not work for and anything calculated to cause hurt, injury or pain to your dog emotionally or physically.

Dr. Beaver, relating to punishment, goes on to note:

Cats do jump on things. They can be kept off objects such as counters if there are other high places they like, but they cannot be kept off all things. A horse gets mixed signals when it is punished with spurs and slaps of the reins, which say “go forward,” and with pulling on the reins, which says “stop.” The resulting frustration can lead to even more unacceptable behavior, such as rearing.

Remember, Dr. Beaver said, “To be effective, the punishment must be properly timed and consistent. It must also be of enough significance to be meaningful to the individual.” This sentence alone makes the use of punishment effectively impossible for pet owners.

So, why do most dog owners still think punishment is effective? It is because, in spite of what we do, our dogs so desperately want to please us that they eventually come to realize we do not want them to do something specific. The fact that this takes much longer than if one used rewards, and is more grueling for both owner and dog, is missed lost on us as humans.

I often use this example: I tell you to sit in Russian. You have no idea what I want. You, assuming you do not know the Russian language, stand there just staring at me. I repeat the word, you still don’t sit. I slam you physically into a chair. What emotions does this evoke? Fight, flight, maim or kill, run and hide? These emotions are not conducive to learning.

Now, I to ask you to sit, again in Russian, as I illustrate/guide/lure you gently into a sit and then give you a hundred dollar bill when you do. What emotions does this evoke? Yippee! $100 just for sitting! Go ahead, ask me again, come on ask me! That, my friends, is the difference between a reward and punishment – you encourage cooperation with rewards and you encourage resentment (at best) with punishment.

Another down side to punishment is that it is like using a nuclear weapon when a piece of candy would be more effective. In addition to the initial blast, the nuke is a gift that keeps on giving via radiation. Punishment keeps on giving because it damages the human/animal bond which can result in aggression and other behavior problems.

Okay, you get that punishment is not good but you have never used positives before. Rewards are anything a dog likes and will work for. Rewards include, but are not limited to, brushing, chats, car rides, ear scratching, food, rubdowns, toys, treats, tummy rubs, and walks. (I once had one dog that learned to jump on command and liked it so much that I could reward other behaviors by asking it to jump on command!) The work involved in training itself, done correctly, can and should be rewarding for you and your dog.

Dr. Beaver describes a reward as:

. . . a reinforcer that follows a behavior. It can be positive or negative (emphasis mine) in its interpretation by an animal and tends to encourage repetition of the behavior.

How can a reinforcer be negative? Your dog is standing in the rain. He has a dog house. He goes in the dog house to avoid the rain. Moving from standing in the rain to inside the dry house is negatively reinforced because it allowed the dog to get out of the rain, which it did not like.

Another consideration is that dogs think like dogs and we think like humans. To illustrate: Dog jumps on owner, owner looks at dog, tells it to get off and then pushes the dog away. Owner thinks dog has been corrected and should stop jumping because the owner does not know the basics of the effective use of punishment especially with DOGS and that it is almost impossible to apply outside the lab and without training. The dog, on the other hand, thinks its jumping was rewarded with THREE types of attention! Its owner, who largely ignores it otherwise, looked at it, touched it and talked to it. Yippee! Dogs will take negative attention over little or no attention. Ask yourself, what do you think this hypothetical dog will do the next time an opportunity to jump presents itself?

And, also problematic is what happens when your actions cause your dog to do something that makes no sense to you at all. An example is that you want to give your dog a bath. It hates baths. You call your dog and, maybe, give it a treat when it comes. Then, you follow the treat immediately with the bath. Next time your dog does not come, or comes very reluctantly, when called. You ask yourself, what is that stupid dog doing now? It is doing exactly what you trained it to do – avoid coming and do not take that treat or you will end up in the bath. Yes, you managed to associate the good – coming and getting a treat – with the bad – a bath – from the dog’s perspective! That is a no brainer!

The bottom line is DON’T USE PUNISHMENT and NEVER physically punish unwanted behavior(s). No more military style drills in the hot sun, freezing cold, rain and high humidity. The more you heed these words of warning, the better off you and your dog will be.

Begin today learning about the use of rewards, a.k.a. positive reinforcement. Your dog will thank you and you will love that it is easier, faster and a lot more fun! Positive training can even be done while you sit on couch and reward your dog for doing what you want it to do!

Positive reinforcement is training with the single most powerful training tool that we humans can possess – our brains! Rewards are a much more effective, efficient and humane way to train.