Sunday, March 16, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Suzanne Hetts on Punishment, Part 1

Punishment is not the problem. So says Suzanne Hetts, PhD, CAAB, CVJ, who elaborates that it is the mis-use of punishment that is a problem. Well, that, and the way we talk about it, which is the subject of today’s post.

Anyone who has been around the dog world for more than, oh, five minutes knows that discussing punishment is “politically sensitive.” Some people refuse to talk about it. Others refuse to listen to people talk about it. Some label anyone who talks about the topic as an animal abuser (or worse- comparing folks to Nazis or child molesters).

There are two big problems with a categorical refusal to discuss punishment. First, Suzanne says that we undermine the profession when we do so. If we don’t talk about it, we lose credibility. Whether we like it or not, punishment exists, and the general public knows that. Refusing to acknowledge that makes us appear willfully ignorant. Worse yet, some trainers don’t talk about punishment accurately or scientifically. For example, some will state that punishment doesn’t work. That’s just a blatant lie. Punishment can and does suppress behavior (that’s sort of the definition of punishment in operant conditioning).

The second problem that Suzanne identifies is that when we refuse to discuss or consider punishment, we miss out on possibly useful options. While Suzanne would rarely use punishment as a first resort, she says there are times it can be helpful. And even if a trainer doesn’t use punishment, she does need to understand it.

A big reason for this is the fact that the general public often defaults to punishment-based solutions. I can’t imagine there are any dog trainers out there that haven’t had a client ask, “How can I get my dog to stop…” Scientifically, stopping behavior requires punishment. Of course, most of us know that the best solution is to reframe the question in terms of what the client wants the dog to do.

And anyway, even if we are opposed to punishment in theory, Suzanne argues that many of the solutions that positive trainers use or recommend are punishing or aversive. For example, the use of a head collars or body blocks are punishing to some dogs, while withholding reinforcement can cause frustration. Still, these are commonly used techniques.

In the end, what it seems to come down to is that humans (trainers and clients alike) have a negative reaction just to the word “punishment.” Think about it; the words “corrections” or “discipline” are far more pervasive, and pack a much smaller emotional punch. Semantics aside, Suzanne encouraged us to consider if we’re really opposed to punishment in and of itself, or if we are actually opposed to confrontational methods.

I find this distinction to be a useful one. I will not use pain or fear to train my dog, but I have no problem telling her she can’t do something, or enforcing a time-out if needed. I will not engage in power struggles, especially with larger, stronger dogs, but I sure will use tools like head halters that give me an advantage. While punishment can become confrontational, it doesn’t have to be. Punishment is not one-dimensional. It’s not all-or-nothing, and our conversations about it shouldn’t be, either.

So what should we discuss when talking about punishment? Ah, you’ll have to tune in next week to find out.

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