Punishment should rarely, if ever, be a trainer’s first choice. But Suzanne argues that it’s something we shouldn’t completely dismiss, either. By applying critical thinking skills instead of emotions, we can make better training decisions. And, though it makes me a tad uncomfortable to say it, sometimes those decisions will include punishment.
So how do we decide if punishment should be used? This flow chart, included in our handouts, and available online at this link (on page 19) is very helpful.
Punishment can only be used to eliminate a behavior you don’t like. That said, it’s best to create a reinforcement-based program to create a behavior you do like instead. However, when behaviors are dangerous, they need to be addressed immediately, and the benefits outweigh the risks of using punishment (and make no mistake- there are risks), a punishment-based program may be needed.
If you’ve found yourself in such a situation, Suzanne provided some criteria to ensure that the punishment is effective. The more of these conditions you meet, the more humane the punishment will be. It will still be punishment, of course, but it will reduce the risks of fallout.
Start with Response Prevention
“Response prevention” is where you prevent the unwanted behavior from happening. This is an excellent first step: if you can completely prevent a behavior by changing something, you may not even need a punishment-based solution. However, if you do need to use punishment, response prevention is equally important because…
Punishment Must Be Consistent
When it’s not, the dog may decide that the behavior is worth the risk. For example, if I got a ticket every time I was speeding, I probably would stay within the speed limit. As it stands, though, I’ve had one speeding ticket in the past ten years. Considering the frequency of speeding to being ticketed ratio, it seems worth it. To be effective, the dog must believe that the behavior will automatically trigger the punishment. This is why Suzanne says that…
Remote Punishment is Better Than Interactive Punishment
Dogs are excellent at picking up on discriminative cues that predict events. If you are always the one that delivers punishment, the dog will begin to associate you with the feeling of being punished. For this reason, “booby traps” that appear unrelated to your proximity or presence are preferable to punishments that involve you directly.
It Must Be Immediate
Punishment also must be immediate, and definitely no more than three seconds after the behavior happens. If it’s not, punishment simply becomes aversive: an unpleasant thing that happens randomly with no effect on the behavior.
Dogs Must be Able to “Turn Off” the Punishment
If the punishment must start immediately upon the behavior happening, it must also cease as soon as the behavior stops happening. If the punisher continues to happen after the behavior stops, it will be affecting all those subsequent behaviors. This unnecessarily muddies the waters, making it much harder for the dog to understand what he should and shouldn’t do.
Choose the Correct Intensity
Finally, punishment must be severe enough that it will stop the behavior within 3 to 5 applications, but not so strong that it creates unwanted side effects of fear or aggression. This is probably the hardest criteria to implement, since it requires some guesswork.
If it’s not clear by now, using punishment effectively and humanely requires quite a bit of knowledge, skill, and prior planning. It’s not something to be undertaken in the heat of the moment. The vast majority of the time, there are solutions other than punishment that will be equally effective if you take the time to figure it out.