Punishment… it happens

Punishment… it happens

It is one of my biggest pet peeves when people call clicker trainers permissive. I may not use physical punishments but I’m probably one of the “strictest” doggie moms out there. I have rules and expectations of my dogs and have no problem using punishment when it is appropriate to maintain those rules/expectations. There is nothing inherently permissive about choosing not to use physical punishments.

The reality is, life is not free of punishments for me or for my dogs. Punishment is not inherently a BAD thing (as a construct)–it’s simply additional feedback on our actions/behavior that will make that behavior less likely to happen. One mistake people make is that they believe that the punishment has to be physical to be effective. This is a huge mistake for a few different types of dogs–those who have high pain thresholds, dogs who have high levels of drive, and dogs who are sensitive. The second mistake people make is that they may be adding what they think are physical punishments but it’s doing nothing to reduce the likelihood of the behavior repeating–but they keep on “punishing” so they are just affecting the bond they have with the dog, not even addressing the problem at hand. Think about it, if you have to KEEP using the punishment for the same behavior, is it being effective?

Shayne is a dog who could be leash-popped repeatedly, smacked, or scruffed repeatedly without really being bothered by it–actually those are all things that could easily build her excitement/arousal level. Getting a physical punishment is FAR less punishing than if I remove myself or end a game. A few years ago, Shayne and I were playing frisbee and she was extremely jazzed up but everything had been going fine. I made a long toss and then cued Shayne to do a back vault (I’m leaning over so she can jump onto and off of my back)–Shayne came barreling toward me and 1/2 blew off the back vault and ended up running/jumping into the back of my head. I instantly started seeing stars and got super dizzy (mild concussion much?). Instead of hitting her or hurting her as punishment, I immediately disengaged with her, grabbed her collar (couldn’t see straight enough to find her green leash in the grass), and put her in the car. DONE. She didn’t see a frisbee again that day and I totally and completely disengaged from her for about 5 minutes. That punishment was strong enough to be a single learning event because she’s never done it again and she’s very careful about hitting the back vault appropriately or IF she balks on it, she slows down and avoids my head.

Rio is the opposite of Shayne. He is so sensitive. A few weeks ago he was running around and he barreled into me and knocked me off balance. In trying to catch myself I pretty much smacked him in the face and fell over him. Since then he’s been a bit wonky with me and will do “tap out” roll over if he runs into me and I lean over him. He would be a scared, anxious, broken dog if I tried to use physical punishments with him. He is just so sensitive. I can’t even raise my voice at a sporting event on TV without him running up to me licking his lips, yawning, with a low fast tail wag. Physical punishments would break him and it would be sad. Again, that doesn’t mean I don’t use punishments with him. Last week during agility class, there was a young female beauceron in class and he kept eying her lovingly. Her handler was letting her poke her head through the ring gating and Rio was quite distracted. On one run we were doing a pinwheel of jumps and he locked on to her while he went over the second jump and blew me off to go say hi to her. Once I got him back, he was put in a down-stay and I ignored him for a minute. No agility, no attention, no getting to play. I took away the things that were most valuable to him at that moment… access to running the course and my attention. Once he was allowed access to play again he was spot on.

One of the behaviors students are most amazed by during the first week of class, is that dogs will learn the It’s Yer Choice game and by the end of class they can see an open hand of food and not go for it. Most dogs figure it out in a matter of minutes. I take this as a chance to illustrate an example of “meaningful punishment.” During the beginning, I often have to remind people to not say “eh, eh!” or “Nooo!” or “TSST” or another verbal ‘punishment’ (very rarely a physical punishment). I often explain to people that when they are closing their hands, that is a much clearer and more meaningful punishment than their verbal corrections. I point out how fast that meaningful (and non physical) punishment helped their dog learn the expectation and often ask if the “punishments” they are currently using change behavior that quickly and that’s when the light bulb often goes off.

There’s a lot that goes into the effective use of punishment and I think I’ll spend a few days talking about the role of punishment in positive dog training since I can’t jam it all into this post.

  1. This is such a valuable post. It’s definitely something I intuitively know by now with Pearl but it’s helpful to have it articulated so clearly so I can explain to those who don’t understand my training philosophy or why I won’t use a pinch collar etc…

  2. Great post, Tena!

  3. Wonderful explanation of why not to use punishment! I also have a mixed crew here, Toby is pain intolerant and sometimes sensitive too (and other times bullheaded, depending on the situation), Meadow is an anxious wreck, and although Leah could probably handle physical punishment – I wouldn’t want to risk ruining our bond.

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