Punishment – A bad word?

Punishment has become such a bad word of late within popular dog training media.

There are some trainers that say they only use Positive Reinforcement. The word punishment invokes certain feelings and ideas in many people’s minds. From personal experience it seems, choke chains, alpha rolls, slapping or hitting etc. Yes all off these things could be described as punishing – perhaps! Read on…

To understand what a punisher is we need to understand learning theory. Punishment is something that reduces behaviour. Reinforcement is something that increases behaviour. Now, take the choke chain example – if I stop choking the dog when he sits down, I have just used the removal of the choke chain as reinforcement for the dog to sit! This is called Negative Reinforcement – the removal of an unpleasant/undesirable stimulus when the desired behaviour occurs.

The word punishment is no-where to be seen in this situation – however, of course this is not something that should ever be done to a dog! It is a fact that it is impossible to train a dog without the use of punishment! Think about it. If your dog jumps up on you and you ignore him i.e. remove the reinforcement of your attention. This will over time reduce the jumping up behaviour. This process is known as Negative Punishment! This is what a “positive reinforcement trainer” does.

However, none of us would ever say that we use Negative Punishment to a client – because of the perceived notion of what the word punishment means. Telling a child that they won’t get any ice-cream until they stop their tantrum is Negative Punishment! Negative Punishment sounds terrible, but when it’s explained, it is of course is the ethical way to deal with that situation. Slapping the child to stop the tantrum is called positive punishment – this is the addition of an unpleasant stimulus in order to reduce a specific behaviour. Punishment has become such a bad word and I believe undermines people’s ability to truly understand how their dogs learn.

What the solution is I’m not sure – the general public is already bombarded with so many notions and ideas about what makes a good dog trainer.

Ethical Training is a term I like to use. Which would incorporate both the use of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment in training and is a more correct way of describing how we should train our dogs.

Just something to think about :) Comments welcome :)