Punishment – and why it doesn’t work

I am dedicated to positive training methods, no matter whether I’m working with human or canine students. Since I’m doing both these things on a regular basis, I sometimes encounter disbelief or opposition:

“But you can’t teach students without scolding them!”

“Your dog won’t learn if you don’t tell her what she’s doing wrong!”

Rather than getting annoyed, I try to remind myself that we live in a society where punishment has traditionally been the default method for solving a problem. Not only do old habits die hard: this is particularly true for punishment, because punishment is highly reinforcing for the punisher – even though it rarely works!

Let’s take a look at why punishment doesn’t tend to work, so that next time our training philosophy is being questioned, we can make the case for positive reinforcement!

1. Punishment tends to occur with a delay. 

Animals connect punishment to whatever it is they are focused on the instant the punishment occurs. If, say, you punish your dog for peeing in the house while you were gone, she may connect the punishment with any number of actions – but not with the peeing on the rug, which happened an hour earlier. Instead, your dog might connect it with his happy greeting when you walked through the door, with the particular position he was standing in when you scolded him etc. 

If you call your dog and he doesn’t react, then punish him when he finally gets to you with a delay, you are effectively punishing his arrival, not his late response. Being afraid of your reaction, he might take even longer to respond to a recall next time.

As for people: while we may be mentally capable of making the connection between punishment and cause, we don’t necessarily make it on the psychological level that matters for punishment to work. After all, behavior it isn’t all that rational: 

The punishment for somoking is lung cancer – smokers know that, but yet they keep smoking because the consequences seem far away and unsure.

The punishment for heavy drinking is an uncomfortable hangover – yet we keep partying, since the next morning is too far away to matter.

2. Punishment may only works in the punisher’s presence.

If you punish your dog or cat for jumping on the coffee table and stealing a bite of your sandwich, they may learn to avoid stealing sandwiches while you are present, but keep stealing them whenever you leave the room.

If you punish your child for running, jumping and singing in the living room, she may learn to avoid these behaviors when you are around, but keep engaging in them whenever only your spouse/the babysitter/etc. are around.

3. Punishment teaches avoidance, sneakiness and resentment rather than alternative behavior.

Punishment may simply teach a subject to do the desired behavior without getting caught. This applies, for example, to the dog stealing sandwiches. 

It also applies to teenagers: when I was a teenager, my mother caught me smoking. She scolded me and took away my pocket money. I didn’t stop smoking, I just learned to do it secretly. 

4. Punishment may get linked to you.

When I trained Snoopy, my rescue dachshund, I hadn’t learned about positive training techniques yet. Snoopy was a sensitive dog, and he reacted to my scolding by means of becoming afraid of me. Luckily, I understood his message and changed my methods.

I resented my parents (and to some degree, I still resent them) for being very strict, raising their vocie, and sometimes a hand (I was raised with scolding and an occasional slap, what Austrians call “a g’sunde Watsch’n”).

5. Punishment may be over-generalized.

A friend was left unattended by his parents when he was little, feeling that she had been left behind – a horrible emotion to inspire in a child. Decades later, she still suffers from separation anxiety.

Turid Rugaas (1) mentions a case of a dog that was supposed to heel during obedience class, but, being thirsty, tried to get to the water bowl. The trainer jumped in and corrected the dog, just as he was about to reach the bowl. Not only did the dog connect the punishment with the water bowl instead of the heeling lapses, he didn’t dare to drink for several days.

(1) In: Turid Rugaas: My Dog Pulls. What do I do?

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