A dog’s mental health and quality of life depend very much on his human companions. Do the people acknowledge, respect, and try to understand the dog’s point of view?
Do they take the time to teach the dog how to act appropriately when living with people? Or do they offer little guidance yet frequently punish the dog for breaking rules that he doesn’t even know exist?
Punitive training does not make for a happy home — for dogs or people. But I think the situation is insidiously more serious. All too often, punitive training is not training at all.
When dogs fail to do what their owners want, the knee-jerk reaction is to punish them — under the guise of training – severely and frequently, in many cases. By definition, however, punishment should never be frequent. The purpose of dog training is to alter the frequency of behaviors and teach reliable cued responses. Thus, as training progresses, both unwanted behavior and punishment should decrease in frequency. Frequent punishment and increasing severity of punishment are proof that an unwanted behavior is not decreasing, and therefore the process cannot be considered training.
Popular usage of the word “punishment” generally means inflicting pain. However, a scientific (training) definition states that punishment is a stimulus that decreases the frequency of the immediately preceding behavior so that it is less likely to occur in the future. There is nothing in the scientific definition of punishment that states that it has to be unpleasant, scary, or painful.
In other words, punishment does not have to be aversive to be effective. Conversely, by no means are all aversive stimuli effective punishments.
Indeed, what most people call punishment does not fit the scientific definition at all. Instead, it’s either nagging (non-aversive and non-punishing) or harassment and abuse (aversive and non-punishing). We can all understand why nagging is ineffective, but how come shouting, hitting, jerking, and shocking – which are certainly unpleasant -- seldom work? Well, let me count the ways…
For starters, the timing is usually way off — the owner tries to punish the dog for not-coming-when-called but waits until the dog eventually comes back, so in effect the owner punishes the dog for coming. Or the dog quickly learns those times and situations when he can’t be punished, for example, when he is off-leash, collar-less, out of reach, or when the owner (“the punisher”) is absent.
Usually, though, such punishment fails hopelessly because it is non-instructive — the dog just hasn’t got a clue why he is being punished. Just put yourself in your dog’s paws. What if you received an electric shock to your butt right now? You would think: “Ouch! Why did that happen? What was I doing wrong? Sitting in a chair? Sipping coffee? Eating? Talking? Reading Bay Woof?” You haven’t a clue, right? Well, for the most part, neither does your dog.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of aversive punishment is actually quite rare in professional dog training because most aversive stimuli are ineffective and fall into the category of harassment and abuse. When aversive stimuli are used effectively, unwanted behavior and the need for punishment decrease extremely rapidly.
However, we should not all rush to use aversive punishment just because it works. Maybe other things work better, or are easier for dog owners and children to use. Certainly, other methods create more love and trust between dog and owner.
A trained owner can get non-aversive punishments to work just as well as aversive punishments. In most off-leash training scenarios (in the park or around the home), gentle, insistent reprimands work just as well as painful punishment. For the most part, if the trainer/owner understands the scientific principles of punishment, a softly spoken reprimand is sufficient and aversive feedback is simply unnecessary.