Does Punishment Have a Place in Dog Training?

An explanation of the four types of punishment and reinforcement and what it looks like in dog training.

Huldah Nagel
Sep 19, 2019 · 4 min read
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Photo by Wyatt Ryan on Unsplash

I don’t like the word ‘punishment’ and the more I think about it, the more I realize that nobody else seems to, either. It sounds so…medieval. Even when I worked at daycare we never ‘punished’ a child for bad behavior— we put them in time-out. But what is punishment? And what is reinforcement?

The terms “punishment” and “reinforcement” are ultimately easy to understand.

Punishment is the process of discouraging unwanted behavior (*cough* time-out *cough*).

Reinforcement is the process of encouraging good behavior.

However, because of the taboo around the word ‘punishment’ people usually think of physical abuse when they hear it. In fact, the informal definition of the word is rough treatment. Google it.

On the other hand, ‘reinforcement’ is thought of as the kind and only humane way to train your dog. Encourage the good behavior and they’ll forget the bad behavior. Treats and love. Just ignore the bad and reward the good.

Bull.

Well, not total bull. I agree; reward the good, ignore the bad. But did you know that according to the scientific definition of negative punishment, ignoring your dog’s bad behavior can be counted as punishment? Or say your spray your dog with a hose to get him to leave something alone — not stopping until he drops your shoe is counted as reinforcement; specifically, negative reinforcement.

Maybe I’ve studied too much psychology. But these terms abound in the scientific world and they help breakdown the components of reward and punishment. So let’s define the four types of punishment and reinforcement.

-The Positive:

Positive means to add something to the equation. This can be used to encourage good behavior or discourage bad behavior.

Positive Reinforcement — adding a reward to encourage good behavior.

What it looks like: using a treat to reward a trick. Not giving your dog his food or letting him go outside until he sits quietly at the door. The treat, food, and outdoors are all rewards that are presented to encourage good behavior.

Positive Punishment — adding something negative to discourage bad behavior.

What it looks like: electric fences that deliver a buzz when your dog crosses the boundary. A corrective noise (like “no!”) that discourages the dog from eating your lunch. They appear only when the dog disobeys and discourage him from continuing bad behavior.

-The Negative:

Negative means to remove something from the equation.

Negative Reinforcement — removing an adverse stimuli to encourage good behavior. In other words, this bad thing only stops when you do something good.

What it looks like: other than the hose example above, I can’t think of anything. Can you? Honestly, I have yet to think of a way someone can use such methods humanely. It implies that you are constantly and consistently exposing your dog to something adverse. Not cool.

Negative Punishment — removing a reward or something fun to discourage bad behavior. Like grounding a child for misbehaving.

What it looks like: ignoring your dog when he jumps (you are the ‘something fun’ and you removed your attention for bad behavior). Putting your dog in a different room until he can be calm.

Too often people don’t want to use the term punishment or apply it to training. But have open eyes. Ignoring your dog that jumps until he calms down and greets you appropriately is both negative punishment and positive reinforcement. When your dog jumps (the bad behavior) you remove yourself (the reward) from the situation by stepping back = negative punishment. When he calms down and sits, your present the reward (yourself + petting) to encourage good behavior (sitting as a greeting) = positive reinforcement.

In most cases, both punishment and reinforcement can be (and are) used during training, even if unknowingly.

I believe in rewarding, rewarding, rewarding good behavior. But I also believing in correcting (err, punishing) bad behavior. When my dog reacts poorly to a situation, I remove her (negative punishment) from the exciting/rewarding situation and slowly reintegrate her, showing her the right way to act by rewarding calm behavior (positive reinforcement).

Am I going to be scientifically correct and start referring to things as punishment? No. Punishment is a word that brings to mind harsh discipline. I don’t like it. But I do like to explain the four types of reinforcement and punishment, their meanings, and how it applies to different training methods. It seems to help bring to life a dog’s behavior and explain how the dog sees and reacts to a person’s actions for clients who don’t understand their pet.

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