Crime and Punishment

… or rather reward and punishment

It may seem totally logical to think that when we train dogs the best way to go about it is to reward the good behaviour and punish the bad but research reveals a very different picture

First the geeky bit

(you can skip this if you like)

Reinforcers (R)

… are anything that will make a behaviour more likely to be repeated

We can give a person or a dog something they LIKE to reward them, a treat, praise or a pay cheque, or going out in the garden. These all add something so they are called positive reinforcers (R+) or we can nag them until they do something just to shut us up and we stop the nagging the person feels good thus something taken away makes a behaviour more likely to recur. This is negative reinforcement (R-)

It is only the recipient who can decide what counts as a reward, I love chocolate but would certainly turn away from a rare steak. Some dogs would jump over a bone to get a ball and some would ignore the greatest toys to get a tiny bit of carrot

Punishment (P)

… is anything that will make a behaviour less likely to be repeated

As with reinforcement we can give a person or dog something they DON’T like, a smack, a loud noise or a yank on the lead. Something added so positive punishment (P+). On the other hand we can use ‘the naughty step’ by taking our attention away from our dogs for a minute or two (a few seconds is enough for a pup) or we can withhold other rewards, not giving a bonus or a treat, not open the door. All these are taking things away or negative punishment (P-)

Once more it is the recipient who will define what is punishing. Some dogs will be severely traumatised by having water sprayed in their faces while to others it will be a great game

When we get things we like it changes the chemicals in our brains making us ‘feel good’ and that is quite addictive. When something makes us feel good we want to do it more often to experience that sensation. On the down side barking and getting over-excited can also release those chemicals in their brains (a topic for a different article)

Now for the really important bit

A lot of research has been done over the last decade or so on how dogs respond to different teaching methods, particularly around the use of reward and the effects of punishment (P+). First, in ‘Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare’ an article by Hiby, Roony and Bradshaw’ (some of you may recognise John Bradshaw from TV) the researchers found that dogs trained using punishment may demonstrate more behavioural problems. You can see the Abstract of the report here

Secondly, and even more concerning, is a ‘Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors’ by Meghan Herron et al, which demonstrates a link between punishment (P+) and aggression. This study is worth reading

This work has been taken very seriously by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists (AVSAB) who also comment that ‘Punishment can suppress aggressive and fearful behavior but it may not change the underlying cause of the behaviour’  As a result, if the animal faces a situation where it is extremely fearful, it may suddenly act with heightened aggression and with fewer warning signs. In other words, it may now attack more aggressively or with no warning, making it more dangerous; see the AVSAB position statement on the use of punishment here

For how this might impact on us in real life there is an interesting Blog from Veterinary Behaviourist Sophia Yin here

For the above reasons my dog training friend, Lin, and I try to use all reinforcement based force-free training methods

More thoughts

Everyone is more likely to do what they find rewarding, it may be going to work to get a pay cheque, working-out because we feel good afterwards or cooking a nice meal to enjoy yourself or to impress the guests.

Dogs too do what they find rewarding, to get food, comfort or safety for instance and we use this to make our dogs more likely to do what we like

On the other hand we have to be careful not to reinforce behaviours we don’t want to see for instance by ignoring the good dog and scolding the naughty bits. Dogs love our attention and if the only way they can get it is by making us scold them they may well take that option

If our dogs are persisting in doing things we don’t like we should:

  • Ignore it (if appropriate not if what is happening is either self-rewarding or potentially dangerous)
  • Ensure the safety of people and animals if relevant
  • Try and find what is reinforcing the unwanted behaviour it so it can be prevented
  • Set up the environment to prevent the unwanted behaviour
  • Teach an alternative, incompatible, behaviour

See the pages on Clicker Training and Reinforcers (Rewards) for more on the theory behind the training training