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The Problem With Punishment (Part 1)


Our knowledge of learning theory and canine behaviour has come a long way in the last twenty years, but that certainly hasn’t diminished the number of topics that can create a heated debate. One such topic relates to the continued use of aversives as a primary method of punishing undesirable behaviour.

When using aversives as punishment (eg: applying discomfort or pain, intimidation, force, scaring or startling, etc.) there are a number of negative consequences that could potentially occur. One such consequence is that the person who is administering the punishment gets reinforced for his/her actions due to the perception of the punishment being effective.

I use the word ‘perception’ because it’s common for the use of an aversive to only cause a temporary suppression of the behaviour, rather than it being the intended long-lasting solution. While various aversive techniques may give the appearance of being quick and effective solutions, the ‘fix’ often ends up being temporary, because the behaviour was merely suppressed while the underlying motivation for the display of the behaviour has not been addressed.

And because the ‘fix’ is only a temporary suppression, the undesirable behaviour will likely crop up again. This, in turn, can lead people down the slippery slope of having to increase the frequency and severity of the punishment (in order to maintain the suppression of the behaviour) as the dog builds up tolerance to it.

Here’s a fairly common example of how this can play out:

John was walking his dog (Rex) on-leash, and Rex began to growl at another dog that was approaching. Because John views growling as an inappropriate behaviour, he gave the leash a quick yank to ‘correct’ his dog and (as hoped for) Rex was startled by the ‘yank’ and stopped growling. John thought to himself, “That fixed it.”

A few days later Rex growled at another approaching dog and, remembering his success from the previous occasion, John gave a quick yank on the leash which startled Rex and stopped the growling.

Based on what he perceived had happened, John had been reinforced for using the leash correction as he believed it was an effective solution to stop his dog’s growling behaviour. Accordingly, it was a tactic that he would continue to use.

Over the course of the next few weeks, John didn't notice that he was having to ‘fix’ Rex’s growling more often, and it actually became harder and harder to stop him from displaying this behaviour. Often times several yanks were required to stop the growling, and he was having to use ever-increasing force. At one point John yanked so hard that Rex spun around and snapped at him.

What John didn’t realize, was that Rex felt vulnerable about the approach of other dogs because he was being restrained on-leash. Due to that, Rex's growling was his way of warning the other dogs to stay clear. While the ‘yank’ on the leash initially startled and distracted Rex, it did nothing to resolve his feeling of vulnerability when other dogs approached… so the cause for the growling behaviour remained.

In John’s mind, the ‘yank’ was an effective solution but Rex quickly became accustomed to it (to the point that it didn’t distract him anymore) so the growling behaviour continued due to Rex's emotional state remaining unaddressed. Being a resilient dog, Rex was able to tolerate John’s continued attempts at punishment even when the yanks became repetitive and more severe, until one day the punishment was so severe that Rex lashed out at the person (John) who was hurting him.

To be clear: I am not categorically stating that the use of aversives as punishment cannot work, but they certainly don’t work for all dogs. It’s well-documented that the use of aversives increase stress, inhibit learning, and they carry the potential for behavioural ‘fall-out’.

Due to this, an ethical question is raised: Why continue to use aversive-based training and behaviour modification methods when other methods exist that are as effective (and often more effective), more humane, and far less risky? Based on modern scientific evidence; animal behaviourists, leading trainers and behaviour consultants, and professional organizations from all over the world are advocating training and behaviour modification strategies that do not involve the punitive/aversive practices from the past.

As an example, these excerpts are taken from the position statement on “The Use of Punishment for Behaviour Modification in Animals” by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists (© 2007 AVSAB):

“AVSAB’s position is that punishment … should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”

”AVSAB recommends that training should focus on reinforcing desired behaviours, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviours, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behaviour.”

“Punishment should only be used when the above approach has failed despite an adequate effort as part of a larger training or behavior modification program that incorporates reinforcement or appropriate behaviors and works to change the underlying cause of the behavior problem.”

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