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Punishment and reward in training

Punishment and reward has been a much argued and debated subject in dog training. It is a topic that has and does get very heated because of two basic reasons. There is a knee jerk, emotional reaction in one camp and the other has come from a place of learning and experience.

Punishment and reward has been a much argued and debated subject in dog training. It is a topic that has and does get very heated because of two basic reasons. There is a knee jerk, emotional reaction in one camp and the other has come from a place of learning and experience.

In a lot of instances trainers have been known to use an excessive amount of punishment for a couple of reasons. One is a lack of knowledge, two is a lot of impatience and trainer looking to find a short cut and completely lacking in compassion for the dog.

What does an excessive amount of punishment do to a dog?

Excessive or harsh punishment creates fear and as in all mammals’ fear blocks learning!

Excessive punishment is abuse and as in every abusive relationship it creates a complete lack of trust and the dog will stop trying or making effort in training. Hence learned helplessness.

Long term excessive punishment or abuse will lead to all types of conditions medical, physical and/or psychological.

Excessive punishment does and will make the dog highly reactive to the ‘trainer’ yet not in a positive way. You will see the dog slumped, shaking, and completely unmotivated in every requested or cued behaviour. You will also see the dog attempt to give the trainer calming signals such as averting the eyes, an excessive amount of licking and yawning. The general demeanour will be the one of abject misery.

The devastating effects on dogs can include becoming “overly cautious, nervous, and insular” since they are unable to predict outcomes concerning their behaviour. Additional observed behaviour might include punishment passivity, pain insensitive, stubborn, failing, and resistant to learning and appearing to struggle with training often resorting to withdrawal (Lindsay, 2000).

What does an excessive amount of rewards to do a dog?

“Positive reinforcement training only or force free training”

A trainer who goes completely the opposite way of the excessively punishing trainer and only uses reward will make the dog highly reliant on the presence of food or toys to get the dog to do a trained behaviour.

Without almost constant reinforcement the dog’s motivation will diminish very quickly and he will seek pleasure elsewhere.

Force free (Otherwise known as purely positive) training does not physically or psychologically desensitise the dog to touch. It will make the dog far less receptive to simple things as such as grooming or a veterinary examination. Just ask your vet or groomer and they will confirm this as both spend much of their time struggling with dogs just to do simple and painless procedures.

An excessive amount of positive reinforcement training certainly has its limitations. Without creating proper boundaries and teaching/conditioning appropriate cues, keep going signals and so forth the dog will in fact begin to show signs of extreme independence, much like a spoilt child and will begin to do as it pleases.

Let’s get the terminology correct first!

In behaviour modification regardless of species we have four basic references or models to either weakening or strengthening behaviour.

This terminology was created so all could talk the same language yet in dog training especially, people have created their own special language to make them sound like they are more knowledgeable than anyone else or they simply do not know the correct vocabulary in the first place. The terminology gives us a deeper understanding of what we are doing. It helps with the ability to know how and when to apply the appropriate training technique. Let’s have a look at the correct definitions.

Positive in behavioural terms means we give to the dog.

Negative in behavioural terms means we take away from the dog.

These are also often referred to as the ‘Four quadrants’

Positive reinforcement

To give the dog with something it really enjoys to strengthen a given behaviour i.e.; food, physical affection, vocal praise, toys, tugs and or a game.

Positive punishment

To give the dog something it does not enjoy to weaken or eliminate an undesirable behaviour i.e.; physical correction, spray water bottle, yelling or speaking in a firm voice and physically giving the dog a leash correction.

Negative reinforcement

Is to apply pressure then take it away once the dog either begins to move towards the desired behaviour or gives the desired behaviour. The pressure can be either vocal or physical.

Negative punishment

Is to remove the expected reward when the desired behaviour is not given.

Dog training in its self is a very complex subject. There have been thousands of studies done by very hard working and diligent people. To this very day the studies and training continue as we live in a very exciting time where we know more about the dog than ever before. With the invention of the internet, social media and websites we can now freely and easily access too many of the studies and developments almost as they happen.

Over the last decade or so dog trainers have taken on the term ‘balanced dog training’. For many trainers this absolutely true. However, I have personally seen some of these trainers who deem themselves as such that when clearly, they are not. They are extremely heavy handed with the dogs I have seen them working or training and generally have one training style or methodology.

To remain as effective as possible a dog trainer must remain flexible and observant the entire time to make the most of each training session they participate in. Dogs can and do learn very quickly, sometimes even faster than humans.

In my training positive reinforcement does dominate my methodology yet to be highly effective I must remain ready to use varied techniques to maximise the learning. I also must remain diligent enough not to affect the dogs trust in me and not to diminish the bond I have created with him.

To strengthen or weaken a behaviour the reward or punishment must be in direct correlation with the behaviour. If I wait more than 3 to 5 seconds after the behaviour to reward or punish the dog, it will have little to no idea why it is happening.

Also, to really help the dog, teaching or conditioning markers or a bridge will dramatically ease the challenge of learning. Most trainers will use the word yes, a clicker or both so that they can have a conditioned reinforcer to make the most of every moment. Yet what about a conditioned punisher? I use the word No or Ah as my conditioned punisher and which will mean to the dog there is zero chance of reward as that is not the behaviour I requested. I am not having to give the dog any type of physical punishment so therefore I have not impeded on the dogs’ desire to work.

Conditioning the No or Ah is as simple as every time the dog gives an undesirable behaviour I will say No or Ah and give the dog something it does not like. Remember punishment by definition is something the dog does not like.

According to Kazdin (1989) “some side effects of punishment…may actually be beneficial” and “punitive events often help set and enforce social boundaries, promote impulse control, reinforce social status, and provide various other generalized effects” ensuring optimal adaptation in both social and physical environments

In summation, in my training it is my goal to able to teach the dog to problem solve, to love working and to not to be too intrusive while learning and working. Build your bond with the dog you are working with and together you can achieve great things.

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