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On Positive Punishment: - Why Many Professionals Do Not Advocate The Use Of Punishment By Dog Owners

By listendogtraining, Jan 1 2017 11:00AM

A dramatic shift of opinion has occurred in the world of dog training over the last 50 years; Burch and Bailey note that in the 1930s and 1940s, most trainers believed that animals needed to be ‘broken’ in order to work properly, whereas today’s trainers for the most part advocate an entirely opposing ideology of positivity and reward.

These dog trainers of the ‘old-school’ variety were firm advocators of training by punishing undesirable behaviour, arguing that your dog will obey you if he fears the consequence of disobeying you. However, the modern approach to dog training today has taken a massive shift towards more positive methods, promoting the achievement of success by encouraging and rewarding the right behaviour, as opposed to punishing the wrong behaviour.

Science too seems to support this theory, as we now know that dogs are more likely to learn a selected behaviour successfully, if they are forming a positive association during training. Thanks to the hippocampus (an important part of the limbic system, involved in learning, emotions, and the formation of memories), using positive stimulation to develop desirable behaviour means that lessons are linked to favourable emotions, and are therefore more properly fixed in the dog’s brain. For example, every time you give your dog a command, if the behaviour you are commanding him to perform contradicts the behaviour his instincts are compelling him towards, your dog has a decision to make. By offering a reward that your dog considers more valuable than the natural reward he may receive by following his instinct, you are creating a positive association in the dog’s mind with fulfilling said command. By associating a positive emotion to the dog’s memory of this command, you are more likely to cement it in the dog’s mind, and find it successful in practise. So if the particular lesson is an exercise in recall, you could reward your dog for responding to your call with a piece of ham or chicken – a valuable reward in the eyes of a dog, especially if you dog is food-motivated. If this is repeated often enough to create a strong positive association in the dog’s memory, then the dog is much more likely to return to you even when his instincts tell him to do otherwise – if he sees a cat he’d like to chase, for example!

As a result of such modern science, most contemporary dog trainers now advocate the exclusive use of positive methods, such as food rewards, conditioned reinforcers (such as clickers), and the whole-hearted exclusion of all aversive punishers.

Evidence that positive punishment can have an undesirable effect is even evident in the canine world; Erik Wilsson’s aforementioned study at The Swedish Dog Training Centre looked at the social interaction between mothers and puppies, and noted that the evolving behaviour exhibited by mothers as their puppies grew from 3 weeks of age to 8 weeks of age was capable of having a permanent effect on the minds of those puppies. He noted that some mothers were much more severe with their aggressive altering of their relationship with their puppies from a ‘care-dependency’ relationship to one of ‘dominance-submission’ as they grew, and that this had a direct bearing on how that puppy would ultimately behave with people. For example, when trying to wean their puppies, some mothers were much more aggressive than others, and would continue to punish them even after they withdrew from her. Wilsson said that the social bonds within these litters were weaker than those within litters where mothers had been more benign, and that these puppies ended up less socially gregarious with people; they were less likely to approach even a passive human, and when tested playing ‘fetch’, they were less likely to perform than the other puppies.

So, whilst learning the art of dominance submission through maternal punishment is critical for every puppy (so that s/he may grow up to become well-mannered and able to properly socialise with others of his species) it has become evident that a mother who applies too much positive punishment can actually have a very inhibitive effect on her puppies’ future personalities, and interactions. Puppies may grow up overly anxious, less willing to socialise, and less willing to interact in training exercises and play activities.

In this case, the more punishment received (above the critical threshold), the worse off the dogs ended up. But does this mean we must rule out punishment altogether? Perhaps not – perhaps it means taking a more measured approach – which professionals in the area of canine behaviour management are far better equipped to do than Joe Public. Most agree that dogs need limitations and boundaries in order to become well-balanced – this does not mean they should be hit, shocked or hurt for choosing to disobey a known command, or performing an unwanted behaviour – but in some instances a firm verbal reprimand may be put to good use.

For those who are unable to distinguish between what is ok, and what is ‘too much,’ the safest advice would be to rule out punishment altogether, in order to avoid the erroneous application of punishment, and the disastrous effects of such an error. Burch and Bailey confirm that caution regarding the use of punishment is critical – as it can result in aggression, extreme shyness, extreme fear, and more. Perhaps advising the general public against punishment in its entirety is simply the easiest way to guard against its erroneous use. If a dog owner angrily hits a dog for urinating on the rug, then this is physical abuse, as opposed to the systematic and planned use of punishment.

In broad terms, unwanted behaviours can be ignored, in favour of lavishly praising the juxtaposing desired behaviour when it occurs, or they might, by some trainers, be calmly corrected in a planned and controlled manner, especially when all other punishment-free approaches have been thoroughly applied – any form of punishment that causes unnecessary pain or distress, is just abuse.

Most owners do not want to see their puppy or dog in pain, distress or any other form of suffering – so if the use of positive-only methods mean that more owners will seek out, stick to, and even excel at training schedules they are introduced to by professionals, then that can only be a good thing!

However, whilst our knowledge of dogs’ minds and behaviours improves, it is interesting that we are choosing to entirely exclude a form of canine behaviour and critical communication that is massively present – and crucial - amongst the canine species. Why is it that we are choosing not to apply the use of positive punishment, when it is so extremely evident as a form of communication/training amongst dogs themselves?

Bruce Fogle highlights that during the socialisation period of a puppy, the mother-pup relationship between a bitch and her offspring evolves to one of dominance-submission – and referencing a study carried out by Erik Wilsson at The Swedish Dog Training Centre, Fogle highlights that ‘inhibited bites’, ‘growls’, and ‘mouth threats’ were all amongst the behaviours used by mothers to redefine their relationship with their puppies as they grew older. So if dogs use positive punishment as a form of interaction/communication within their own relationships, why don’t we?

One argument put against the use of positive punishment is the viewpoint of some that as a species, we may be cohabiting with dogs, but we are not dogs, and our dogs know that we are not dogs. So to attempt to mimic them is not the right thing to do. Cesar Milan’s controversial ‘mimicking’ of the mother bitch’s corrective snap (delivered to a dog with his hand) is one such example, and is frowned upon by many as an unnecessary physical punishment.

However, if one were to argue that we should not be mimicking dogs, then the only solution is to behave and communicate simply as a human. Do we use punishment within our species? Of course we do. If you were to behave disobediently at school you might be punished by having to write 100 lines; it’s an aversive punishment used to decrease the frequency of a student’s unwanted behaviour. We punish criminals with prison, or community service, and we might punish children with extra chores if they have been naughty. The world would be a very different place if our only response to crime was to ignore it entirely! So, to play devil’s advocate, a supporter of the use of punishment might argue that if dogs use it amongst dogs, and humans use it amongst humans... then it is somewhat confusing that the dog-human relationship must be managed entirely without it.

The reason the reaction to the use of punishment in today’s society is now so strong, is likely a direct result of the abhorrent and extreme punishing techniques known to have be used in old-school training methods. Old-school trainers -particularly those working in the military- believed, at the time, that dogs must experience consequences for negative behaviour, rather than being lavished with food rewards for good behaviour, alleging this to be a better way to produce reliable obedience, since these dogs were depended upon to keep their handlers alive and safe in serious situations. Unfortunately for the dogs being trained at the time, some barbaric forms of punishment – like prong collars, electric shocking, hitting, choking and shaking – were commonplace. As a result of the entirely justified modern outcry against such awful forms of punishment, it would seem that ALL forms of punishment have now been grouped under the same umbrella term, and thrown out alongside. (Although ironically, even people who claim to use ONLY positive methods can still be seen to shout a stern ‘NO!’ when their dog misbehaves, or yank angrily at the lead when their dog starts barking at the nearest cat.)

I think a balanced conclusion should be that when it comes to any form of behaviour modification or training, positive reinforcement should always be the first port of call – and there’s plenty of research to testify to that effect. Elly Hiby published a paper in 2004 after comparing the relative effects of reward and punishment, concluding that the dogs trained using rewards became more obedient, whereas those trained using punishment displayed an increase in bad behaviours. In 2008, another study was published further supporting Hiby’s findings, which stated that positive reinforcement led to lesser displays of fear and attention-seeking behaviours, whilst dogs trained using punishment were showing increased aggression in comparison.

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