Punishment has to be the next most misunderstood behavior principle, right next to negative reinforcement. While reinforcement will involve providing a reinforcer (something your subject wants that will increase the likelihood the target behavior will occur again), punishment deals with applying aversive stimuli (things your subject doesn’t want and doesn’t like) in order to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur again.
Punishment to me has a bad rap, but it is far from undeserved. Whereas reinforcement can be used in almost any situation, punishment must be used with extreme caution and with several limiting factors in place.
Before I go on about punishment, let me just say that when you use punishment ALWAYS write down what you’re doing. Your note could be for how long, the effect, and the reason, but use these notes to keep in mind why you are punishing and what reinforcers you are pairing with it. It is very easy to lose control over your punishers and resort to nothing but punishment to get what you want. This is also why you should always pair punishment with a reinforcer to make sure you’re not over-relying on punishment to modify behavior.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why I don’t recommend most people to use punishment when it comes to training dogs. It’s very easy to get carried away with it, and it’s very easy to rely on punishment to get what you want done.
Before we move on to how to use punishment, let’s dig into the first misconception people have:
Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, and Misconceptions
People have a tendency to agree that punishment is just a bad idea. But then they turn around and immediately scold their dog, friend, family member for something bad that they did. If you approached people that do that, in my experience, they’ll say “oh it’s just tough love! I’m giving them a hard time so they can be motivated to do better next time!” Sometimes, they even say this is just negative reinforcement.
If you’ve read my article on Negative Reinforcement, then you know this isn’t even remotely correct. What’s actually happening in this situation is that you’re punishing the person for even trying to do anything. Humans are interesting cause you can use their cognition to understand that this is being done to help them. Arguably, if the person can convince themselves that what’s happening is a reinforcer and not an aversive, then it can be useful. But more often than nought, when someone gives “tough love,” they’re punishing the person’s attempt and then later punishing every wrong attempt. This leads to more pressure on the person you’re trying to teach than they should be going through. It arguably makes learning more difficult unless you pair it with a reinforcer.
If you plan on using punishment in a training regimen, then here are some things to keep in mind:
The Downsides of Punishment
Punishment is not an easy technique to use properly; it comes with several severe downsides that you as the person using it must be aware of. Ignore these cons at your own peril.
First, punishment is highly addictive; it negatively reinforces the person applying the punishment. An example would be if you have a child who is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. If you decide to punish him or her by yelling at them and notice that their tantrum immediately stopped, then the aversive stimulus of your child’s tantrum has been removed. Thus, you are being negatively reinforced to punish this child again when they decide to throw another tantrum. It worked last time, why won’t it work now?
As a result of how reinforcing punishment is, people who use punishment are more likely to want to use it again to fix their problems. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with that, but the problems begin to surface when your subject has no idea what they’re supposed to do. Punishment only teaches your subject what they shouldn’t be doing, instead of what they are supposed to do. As the person dealing the punishment, you will be less likely to reinforce your subject and more likely to punish the wrong behavior.
Going back to your child throwing a tantrum, if your child throws another tantrum, you’re more likely to punish them again and again until they stop, But constant punishment with little to no guidance on what they should be doing is going to harm your child.
Second, punishment will gradually lose its effectiveness, and as a result, the punishments themselves become more and more severe in order to get the same reaction.
Let’s say your child throws a tantrum again, and you yell at them. Your child then raises its voice cause now it’s being yelled at again, so you raise your voice and this time, your child goes quiet cause of how loud you were. This creates a scenario where you are escalating your punishments cause your child is getting used to the previous punishment’s intensity.
Third, the behavior suppressing effect punishment has is only temporary. Do not expect the behavior you are punishing to stay down forever. People who over-rely on punishment tend to forget that behaviors are done for a reason. Punishment may decrease a behavior, but that need is still unresolved. If that need is unreasonable, then reinforcing the behavior that you do want will create a long lasting solution, compared to punishing the problem behavior every single time.
Let’s go back to the child again. Let’s say the child just wanted a chocolate bar. Your kid knows it wants a bar but doesn’t know how best to communicate it. So they cry and yell and throw a tantrum. You yell at them and they stop asking you. Your child still wants a chocolate bar, they know they can’t go to you. What do you think they will do? They could cry more, they could ask someone else, they could steal it. There are several options here. But the point being, your child is now creating new behaviors that you may or may not like because you haven’t addressed that initial need.
Dog Training and Punishment
My experience with people who usually perform work with children who have mental disabilities has shown me that punishers can be used effectively without harming the subject. They restrain a child so they can’t self-stimulate (self-harm), or put the child on time out so they know what they should not be doing. “If it works here, why shouldn’t it work for dogs?” I would think to myself.
However, my journeys in dog training have been met with equal parts science and equal parts mysticism. Attitudes toward punishment range from trainers who say “look, that dog is trying to challenge your alpha status. PUNISH THEM” and then proceed to kick or punch their dog. This was most obvious when I asked for advice on how to train a dog to not jump on people. The old fashioned dog trainer’s response was to knee the dog – the harder the better.
Other times, punishment is met with resounding disgust. “Oh, you use punishment? You must not be a very good dog trainer because positive reinforcement is all you need” was the common response. But there are times where reinforcement alone will not get the job done. In fact, I would argue it is those trainer’s lack of experience that creates those mindsets because they haven’t encountered a situation where they need to precisely use punishment to solve a problem. For example, if a dog chews on wires, then it is difficult for trainers to reward alternate behaviors. We could give them a treat, but for some dogs, chewing the wires is alreayd good enough, they don’t need more. Punishment here would be used by spraying a bad tasting/smelling chemical (that’s harmless to the dog) onto the wires so your dog can quickly learn that eating wires is a bad idea.
So What’s the Best Way to Use Punishment?
Correct usage of punishment is a balancing act between letting your subject know what behaviors are undesirable and which ones are acceptable.
For dogs, you can notice a simple “NO!” is able to do this. Most people have associated that distressed “NO” with the dog doing something you don’t want. As a result, “NO” becomes a punisher because it causes a behavior to be less likely to occur.
Leash yanks are also punishers, but don’t do this too often. This technique has lead to Laryngeal Paralysis in many of the dogs this has been used on.
The best example of punishment can be seen in a strategy I learned in how to train a dog for recall. First, the trainer puts the dog on a leash. Second, the trainer holds the leash in a secure way and then calls the dog. If the dog tries to walk or run away, then the leash will get tighter which is an aversive to the dog. If the dog walks toward you, then the leash naturally relaxes and is reinforcing the dog to come to you. Once the dog reaches you, you can also give a treat which is another reinforcer.
Now mind you, this isn’t the only way to teach your dog recall, but this is an example of how you can properly use punishment without abusing your dog. Notice how, in this example, it is being paired with a reinforcer. This is what makes punishment a useful tool – you can use punishment to communicate what you don’t want, and reinforcement to reward what you do want. Both of these concepts working in tandem will lead to effective teaching regimens.
For the next few articles, I’m going to talk about the two types of punishment types out there: positive punishment and negative punishment. Both of these are important concepts to learn before you even begin doing ANYTHING involving punishment since, again, punishment has some severe downsides to it that should always be kept in mind.