Punishment: Pros and Cons

Some great comments from yesterday’s post. Here is the kicker though, not all dogs that are trained with positive punishment will cower in fear or tuck their tail oreven dislike training.  The truth is, a very skill trainer that has brilliant timing can produce a seemingly happy working dog while using some pretty massive doses of violent positive punishment. One key to this puzzle is that the reinforcement the dog recieves from the work is also massively high. This is why large amounts of physical pain may be accepted by some dogs chasing ducks on the pond in comparison to the same dog working in the obedience ring.

However, even if the dog’s tolerate it, there is still a double edge problem with the use of positive punishment. First of all, there are so few trainers out that have such phenomenal timing, they do exist because I have seen them in action, however there are rare. So when people with poorer timing try to reproduce the punitive methods the resultant dogs work with in fear hence the stress response, cowering or tail tucking. But don’t blame the method, it is the poor application of the method that is the problem.

Not that I am here to sing the praises of positive punishment, I am just wanting the picture to be clear. If everyone had brilliant timing and criteria selection and balanced this violent punishment with massive amounts of reinforcement the dog would work with a great attitude and all would appear rosy except for one thing. The other side of the double edge problem with punishment is that there is always fallout with any form of punishment–even something as benign as a time out. The more punishment you use in your training the more anxiety you create for the dog. You won’t always know where or when but it will express itself somewhere else in the dog’s behaviour or performance.

Then there are the trainers that justify their use of physical punishment by saying “it’s just dog, he can take it” I tell myself when I hear those type of comments that I am pretty sure anyone possessing that kind of attitude towards an animal are going straight to hell when their number comes up. But hey, salvation is always waiting for anyone:).

Now before you positive-reinforcement-based-trainers go getting all self righteous on me, let me just point out that a trainer using only positive reinforcement but applying it badly can also create problem dogs. As Russ pointed out in yesterday’s comments there are many out-out-control poorly behaved dogs whose owners are all about the cookie or the clicker. In my opinion, both the overly cookied-dogs and the positively punished dogs live in a life of frustration (but perhaps the ones that never get punished enjoy their frustration slightly more:)). I have seen many “shut down” dogs with handers that would never so much as raise their voices to their dogs. You still need to study the habits of effective dog training to get results!

It all comes down to reinforcement. Knowing what is reinforcing to the dog and manipulating this value to create reinforcement for all you want the dog to excel at. It isn’t just about giving a dog a cookie– there is so much more than that. Yes I use punishment, negative punishment but I try to keep the application of (mostly in the form of a manipulating response cost or applying time outs) to no more than 15% of my training. Plus if I use punishment I have a strict set of guidelines to follow up the training (that is a another post of its own I am sure).

It is a life long journey for me to better understand the most effective use of reinforcment in dog training. I am not naive enough to think I have all the answers, but I certainly confident enough in my choices thus far to know I am on a peaceful path that creates brilliance through mutual respect and team work rather than imposed leadership and intimidation. Of all the things I don’t know, one thing I do know for sure is that neither my dogs nor I will be making that rip to hell.

Today I am grateful for the gorgeous weather we are experiencing here in March!

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