In operant conditioning, you often hear about positive reinforcement: the dog earns some reward for performing a desired behavior. But there are three other ways to influence behavior that fall under the same training theory. The four ways, broken down simply are:
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1. Give your dog something good—a treat for a sit.
2. Take away something good—a timeout for bad behavior.
3. Give your dog something bad—the shock of an e-collar.
4. Take away something bad—releasing the pressure on a choke collar for a sit.
In general, we try to keep our training to the first two items both because they’re more effective and because they produce fewer unwanted side effects like bolting and loss of the dog’s confidence in the handler. But certain dogs just won’t avoid temptation by positive reinforcement alone.
Enter punishment. Specifically, we’re going to talk about positive punishment—the sort that’s generally associated with rolled up newspapers, e-collars, and the like. When it comes to greeting other dogs, Danger has a long history of lunging out to say hi, which he evidently finds enjoyable. Further, his owner Grayson’s yanking on his lead isn’t changing his behavior. He just ignores the nagging. So we’ve got to find some way to get him to stop. In Danger’s case, we discovered that his aversion to water could be an advantage. I had Grayson and Danger walk across the room past another dog. When Danger pulled out to greet, Grayson gave him a quick squirt of water in the face and that ended that.
But positive punishment (the proverbial stick) is dangerous territory for both dog and handler. The punishment has to be severe enough to actually stop the behavior and not so much as to actually injure the dog physically or mentally. Steve White, a well-known police dog clicker trainer, has come up with eight rules for punishing your dog. They underscore just how hard it is to get punishment to work properly without undue fallout. The best reason to avoid punishment is that it tends to be reinforcing to the punisher—the owner feels some satisfaction in getting even with the dog, and turns to punishment more and more often to change behavior. Not good.
THE EIGHT RULES
1. The punishment must be something the animal dislikes and something the animal does not expect.
2. The punishment must suppress the unwanted behavior, otherwise it’s just plain abuse.
3. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much and the dog will shut down. Too little and the dog develops resistance to punishment.
4. The punishment must happen immediately after the behavior.
5. The punishment must be associated with the behavior, not you. Otherwise your presence is a signal that punishment may occur, and your absence is one that it will not. The result? A sneaky dog.
6. The punishment must happen every time the behavior occurs. Otherwise, you may put the undesirable behavior on a variable schedule and make it even tougher to break.
7. There must be an alternative for the dog. Give him an opportunity to perform an acceptable behavior in order to escape or avoid the punishment.
8. Punishment must never be used to the extent that punishment outweighs reinforcement from the dog’s perspective.
If you can’t follow all eight of these rules, you’re probably better off avoiding the use of punishment. Even if you can follow all eight rules, it’s always better to try positive reinforcement before resorting to punishment.
This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on May 12, 2009.