Training Talk: Punishment

This instalment of “Training Talk” is going to look at punishment. This might seem an odd topic to find on the blog of a force-free trainer who utilises positive reinforcement, but it is my belief that it is important to understand not just what you recommend, but also what others recommend.

Punishment is a word that holds a lot of unpleasant associations. When we hear the word we tend to think of a smack or harsh words. In the world of training it isn’t quite that simple.

Dog Training

Punishment is simply something that decreases the chance of our pet repeating a certain behaviour. When our dog barks or our bird squawks and we yell “NO!”, we are hoping that they will stop the noise and hopefully not do it again. This example, and many other commonly used “punishments” are rarely as effective as we would like.

Just like reinforcement, there are two types of punishment we can utilise in training. The first is the most well known, positive punishment. This sounds contradictory, but all the positive means is that we add something to decrease a behaviour. We might add a loud noise to stop a barking dog, a squirty bottle to stop a scratching cat, or a yank on the leash to stop a pulling dog.

We can also use negative punishment. This sounds silly too, but like the positive means to add something, the negative means we take something away to decrease a behaviour. When we use negative punishment we take away something our pet likes in response to their misbehaviour, it’s like a time-out. This is what people are hoping to achieve when they “ignore” their pet for doing something naughty, they are taking away their attention, but often there are environmental factors outside our control that may be undermining our efforts.

Timing is everything in training, and this is true of punishment too. If we want our punishment to affect our pets behaviour, it needs to happen immediately following the behaviour we want to see less off. This means if you discover your pets misbehaviour hours after the event, you just need to move on. Punishing you pet will be damaging to your relationship, and completely irrelevant to your pet. Also consider how hard it is to properly “time-out” your pet immediately following something naughty – by the time you get them to the naughty corner or back in the cage, 10 things have happened since the behaviour you want to punish, and the lesson is lost!

If we get our timing right we can stop unpleasant behaviours, but we have to realise why punishment works to decrease a behaviour. It works because our pet doesn’t enjoy the outcome, most often because what we do is aversive (or unpleasant). Training with aversive’s create stress and anxiety for our pets, which can lead to bigger problems long term. We would do better to look at why the problem behaviour is occurring, and looking for ways to prevent it happening again while teaching our pets more acceptable behaviours that we can reward. This is much more enjoyable for both us, and our pets.

Train smart, not tough!

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The importance of choice

Imagine for a moment that your whole life was completely controlled by someone else. No matter what you said or how you asked, they decided when you could eat, where you could sleep, what you could do to entertain yourself, even when you had access to the bathroom.

Humans have a lot of choice about what they do on a given day. Sure we have a basic schedule of things that we have to do (like go to work) but we are able to act on our environment and the people and animals in it to maximise our enjoyment in our day, and to avoid things that make us uncomfortable (or to solve these problems to resolve such issues).

dog choosing to play choice control

Our pets often aren’t afforded this control in their lives. We decide everything for them. Some of our decisions result in lots of fun for our pets, like going to the beach, playing a game, or settling down for some one-on-one affection, but other decisions can create a lot of stress for them.

We have high expectations of how our pets should behave, and we often don’t take the time to communicate clearly and teach them how to meet those expectations. Imagine back to your day with no control, and imagine having someone constantly scolding you for doing what seems logical to you (sitting somewhere comfy, greeting someone when they approach, etc). Given a few tries at finding the right thing to do, if you were still being told NO, you would probably start to feel frustrated, angry, confused, and stressed. This is life, at least some of the time, for many household pets.

So how can we give our pets choice in their day, to reduce stress and allow them to interact meaningfully with their environment? We can train them with positive reinforcement, teaching them through clear and gentle methods what they are allowed to do. We can learn about their body language, and step into the role of their advocate when we see that they are worried by something. We can condition them gradually to enjoy experiencing more things. And we can show them ways to let us know what they want and need. We can empower our pets.

Choice and control over our life is important to our mental well being, and the same is true of our pets. What are some ways you could increase your pets choices around your home?