Why is punishment so addictive?

For a long time, before I became terribly interested in animal behaviour and training, I used what is often called “traditional” training methods with my pet dog and birds. Never anything particularly harsh, but nothing that was particularly constructive for my pets learning new things either. From using a check chain on dog walks, to pushing into my birds belly until it stepped onto my finger, I achieved some training goals…eventually. Some i never achieved, because i had no way to teach them with the tools i’d been given. Considerably more time was spent reacting to what my pets did wrong. There was the “UH UH!” and “NO!” as well as the squirty bottle, tin of 5c pieces (to make a loud noise), and a loud clap behind the head.

The more i learn, the more dust these methods gather in my “training toolbox”. As i “crossed over” from traditional training to training with positive reinforcement the hardest thing to drop was the reactive punishment-based methods when my pets would do something i didn’t like. Why is punishment so addictive to so many pet owners?

One thing that comes to mind is that punishment is often great at suppressing behaviour, albeit temporarily. How satisfying is it when your dog is barking and barking and barking, and you finally crack and bang on the window while yelling “NO!”, and your dog goes quiet. Ahhhh!! It worked!! Peace and quiet. I bet you that your dog will start barking again though. Why? Because you haven’t taught it what to do, nor have you addressed the reason it was barking. In the same situation, with you present or not, your dog will bark again.

While punishment is often great at suppressing behaviour, our pets often become surprisingly resilient to the deterrents we throw their way. The first time you just said “no”, then it got louder, next you had to stand and move threateningly towards your pet, then swat at it, smack it, etc. For punishment to continue working it has to escalate, often beyond the point that we feel comfortable (we pet owners aren’t heartless after all).

stress signals dog training

To be proactive in training, we have to plan ahead and put the effort in before the problem occurs. This is part of setting our pets up to succeed, making it easy for them to get it right. Sometimes all the good intentions in the world aren’t enough to motivate us to get off the couch and train our pet to do some useful basic behaviours. After all, if they’re not misbehaving then chances are they aren’t annoying us. Humans are often very reactive in nature, waiting for a problem to crop up before fixing it. Learning to be a proactive trainer can be hard, just like learning any new skill set, while being reactive with punishment often comes very easily to us.

Another addictive quality of using punishment-based methods is that they often work really well initially, and then variably, and eventually not at all. Why is this addictive? For the same reason that gambling is addictive! Once we feel we can achieve a result using punishment, we become addicted. Even if it stops working so well, we know it used to work – maybe it will work again. It keeps us trying, even in the absence of long-term results.

So there are a few reasons why it might feel really hard to rein-in your reactions to your pets misbehaviour. It is hard to change a long-term habit! But it is worth putting punishment in the “last resort” category when training. The more you learn about positive, force-free methods, the more you will realise that those “last resort” situations are incredibly rare. Anything that can be achieved with punishment can be achieved more kindly, and with more resilience (the results will LAST), using positive-reinforcement.

Train smart, not tough!


2 thoughts on “Why is punishment so addictive?

  1. I love this post! Everybody with an animal in their care should read it. It’s worrying how easy it is for those little “uh uh”s to creep in when a dog (or other animal) doesn’t do what we want. It’s even harder when two animal guardians have different approaches… Currently training my dog AND partner, who is rather old-school in his approach and is definitely addicted to verbal punishment. Will make sure he reads your post. Thanks!

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