I’m gonna go back and finish up our discussion of ineffective punishment from last week. There are lots to be said, but it’s taxing writing about such ‘sad’ topics.
Do not punish out of anger
I wish I could say that this wasn’t the case but the vast majority of people I see who are using corrections are doing so out of a place of anger or frustration. Their punishments have many of the “ineffective” features I’ve written about in this series but they are also often based in emotion and that the level of correction is so very over the top and the timing so poor that the dogs have no idea what they did wrong.
Unfortunately, these over the top corrections are very rewarding for the person. The dogs are often scared into stopping or suppressing any/all behaviors they were doing when corrected–at least for a little while. So the humans are rewarded by the dog stopping the behavior (mostly temporarily). A second reward for the human is that they often blow off some steam by physically correcting the dog so they get are reinforced for the behavior in that sense (like how people who are really mad will go to a gym and spend time on a punching bag to ‘let go’ of that anger/frustration).
I see this a lot with owners of reactive dogs. The dog is pushed over threshold and starts barking, lunging, screaming, spinning, and snapping at other dogs. While the dog is reacting, the person maybe trying to get Fido to sit, walk away, may be pulling on the leash, or possibly giving some leash pops. Once the other dog is gone and their dog has stopped, the handler is totally embarrassed and probably frustrated. What I see frequently is that when the dog finally STOPS reacting the handler is so emotional and angry/frustrated that they give a few harsh leash pop to punish the dog for the reaction or sometimes I’ll see the handler alpha roll the dog after the event. These punishments are not about the dog’s reaction but about making the handler feel better by trying to do SOMETHING about the unwanted behavior (often I think there are social pressures in this regard–the handlers don’t want to seem like they are doing NOTHING to punish the dog [because they feel the public would be judging them for not doing anything to fix the problem] so they give big corrections to look like they are trying to fix the behavior). These emotional and over the the top behaviors are not doing anything to fix the problem (they are just hurting the relationship between dog/handler). They are often way too over the top in severity and are so poorly timed that the dog is learning nothing other than the handler can be wildly unpredictable (aka reactive).
I mentioned it in an earlier post about how punishments need to be unexpected. If the punishment becomes part of the norm it loses effectiveness. The dogs become numb to the punishments because they happen so frequently so they no longer are effective. This is called a punishment callus and I have a theory that they are the reasons that some people really do believe that their dogs “need” harsh physical punishments. When punishments are over use, the dog becomes acclimated to the low-level pain and will start to ignore it resulting in the handler using higher and higher levels of punishment with the dog. This is something I’ve had students who previously used e-collars talk about. Their training methods were based around lots of physical punishments. They started out using very low level shocks on the collar and it seemed effective but as they continued on the dog “needed” higher and higher levels of shock for the punishments to be effective. The owners got to the point where they knew they were hurting their dog because of the high level of shock being used. The low level of shocks weren’t effective… it’s NOT because their dog “needed” the high level because he/she was bull-headed or stubborn or dominant. The human handlers created a dog who was so used to the low level punishments that they stopped being effective.
This punishment callus is why I try to caution about using training that is based heavily on punishments. When punishment becomes the norm, the level of punishment required to curb behavior increases. Why start down that path? It doesn’t have an enjoyable ending. Instead, focusing on positive reinforcement allows you to build the behavior and keep punishments meaningful, even at ‘low levels’, because they are few and far between.