I don’t know why, but I always enjoy discussions on punishment. In ways, it feels like a “forbidden fruit.” I very rarely use punishment with my dog or my clients’ dogs, and if you try to discuss it- even theoretically- online, it can cause a lot of controversy. So my opportunities to talk about it are rare.
During the Shedd seminar, Ken talked about the advanced concepts of punishment, negative reinforcement, and aversive stimuli. These are three distinctly different concepts that are often confused, misused, and misunderstood. Still, the definitions are quite simple, and if you plan to use any of these techniques, you really do need to understand them.
An aversive stimulus is something that the animal wants to avoid. There is no definitive list of what makes something aversive; each animal will have different feelings about this. For example, some dogs hate being squirted in the face with water, but Maisy thinks it’s AWESOME.
A reinforcer is anything that increases the behavior it follows. Positive means something was added to make that behavior increase, while negative means something was removed. A negative reinforcer happens when something is removed, and as a result, a behavior increases in the future. This can happen for two reasons. First, the behavior may increase due to avoidance; an aversive isn’t actually applied, it’s simply threatened. The animal acts in order to prevent it from happening. Or, the behavior may be the result of escape. This happens when the aversive is actually applied and the removed with the desired behavior occurs. But either way, negative reinforcement is at play. It’s important to note that negative reinforcement can work and be both humane and effective if it’s done correctly.
A punisher is something that decreases the behavior it follows. This, too, can come in the positive or the negative variety. One way punishment can be used humanely is through deprivation; a reinforcer is withheld (negative) so that the animal will not perform the incorrect behavior again (punishment). Ken pointed out that this is why it’s so important to have multiple reinforcers available because this allows you to withhold certain reinforcers without depriving the animal of his full diet.
With that said, you really do need to know your audience when you use these terms. A trainer will punish a behavior; she wants a particular action to stop. But the public tends to punish the animal. That is, the punishment happens well after the fact, such as grounding a child for a bad report card or putting someone in jail for a crime they committed. In both cases, the actual behavior is so far removed from the consequence that it’s probably not being affected much.
So, while Ken does use punishment, he does not use it as the public understands it.
Ken talked about the use of conditioned punishers, as well. These are things that become aversive by association. Just as a clicker is a conditioned reinforcer because it predicts good things, there are also things that will predict bad things.
A delta signal, which is a warning to the animal that an aversive is about to be applied, can sometimes be used as a last chance to get things right. “Stop doing that or else,” it tells the animal. Your mom using your full name can be a delta signal; it tells you that you need to stop pulling your sister’s hair or face her wrath. The problem with deltas is that it can be very easy for the emotional trainer to escalate the use of punishment.
Ken also told us that a no reward marker acts as a punisher. This is the opposite of a bridge; it marks the moment when a behavior is wrong so the animal won’t do it again. These are typically quite mild, but can still cause frustration in the animal. So, while a skilled trainer can use no reward markers effectively and humanely, Ken thinks the potential for misuse is high.
I think my favorite part of this section was Ken’s discussion on how trainers use punishment versus how the public does. I appreciated the focus on behavior, not whether the animal is being “good” or “bad,” “cooperative” or “stubborn” (a word that always makes me crazy).
But what do you think? Anything intriguing here?