How not to do it.

Punishment and dogs is not a new concept. The domestication of animals started about fifteen thousand years ago. Since that time, punishment has been the primary means of controlling these created critters.

Over the centuries, many people have developed an almost superstitious awe for it - as if inflicting pain and discomfort somehow increases an animal's intelligence or willingness to work. Because of this heritage, this topic is rarely discussed, and almost never examined objectively.

The word "punishment" should not automatically imply thumbscrews or eye gouging. In fact, punishment can occur even if no actual harm befalls the punished. A good working definition of the term would be "presenting something that reduces the chance that a behavior will happen."

For example, sharks can punish swimmers just by showing their dorsal fins, and hot rooms punish those who wear heavy clothing. Once the shark is removed, or the temperature drops, swimming and wearing heavy clothes will return to their normal rate of occurrence.

Bassett Hound

Punishment, therefore, decreases the likelihood that something will happen. It is not so much a description of how you imagine the behavior will change, but an assessment of how it actually changed. To say, "I punished the dog for soiling the carpet" is inaccurate if the behavior has not decreased in its rate of occurrence. This practice of inflicting discomfort after the fact is more accurately described as retaliation , retribution or just plain nastiness. i.e. you may have inflicted pain or terror but the animal did not connect it to the behavior! So, by definition, when used correctly, punishment always decreases one or more behaviors. The problem is that punishment is rarely the best solution to a problem, and is almost never practiced correctly.

The first rule of punishment is that it must be closely connected with the event that you are trying to punish. For instance, many cat owners face the problem of cats that investigate kitchen countertops. Most people wait until they see that the cat is already on the counter and then scold it. While this may terrify the cat at the moment, it will do nothing to decrease the likelihood that the cat will jump on the countertop tomorrow. The cat may associate you with the punishment and simply get on the counters only in your absence.

In order to decrease counter-sitting, the punishment must start at the instant the cat begins to jump on the counter - not after he has already spent five minutes curled up by the sink. Here's a practical way to quickly extinguish the behavior. Go to a hardware store and get some thin, clear Plexiglas. Tape the Plexiglas between the counter and the wall so that it forms a transparent incline.

When Felix jumps upward, he is going to hit the angled Plexiglas and slide off onto the floor. A few "alley oops!" and the cat will be permanently trained - through safe punishment. NOTE: If you have a tile floor, put a padded carpet on the floor by the plexiglass -- this will insure the safety of the process, while helping to associate the new carpet with the "alley oop."

The second rule of punishment is to make sure that it is consistent and permanent. For instance, the dog that attacks the front door in response to the doorbell is a common nuisance. To punish the wild and crazy behavior, simply start ringing the door bell before you enter your own front door. As Fido races toward the door, he is expecting the mailman, or an unknown visitor, and is gearing up for some wild barking. Instead of a stranger, there stands his master!

Black lab swimming

A few well placed "punishing" words may be enough to instantly interrupt Fido's confidence. Over a series of repetitions, the likelihood that he will race to the door decreases, and the behavior will soon disappear completely. (For more resistant pups, a blast from a squirt gun may be necessary to stop such a powerful behavior.) Once the behavior is eliminated, start giving Fido a treat for remaining passive when guests arrive. This will change his motivation and help maintain his good behavior.

While these examples of punishment are relatively straightforward, there is a caution that accompanies any use of aversive control. The behavior you punish may not be the only one affected. You may wipe out a number of desirable behaviors unintentionally or create more problems than you started with. For instance, chasing small children is a typical, but objectionable canine behavior.

If you are expecting a number of small bipeds at your home you may use balloons to punish chasing behavior. First, inflate some balloons and pop them in your dog's face. Once Fifi is totally appalled by the sight of balloons, simply pin one on each of the children. Fifi is not going to approach any "wee ones" as long as they wear the dreaded balloons.

If you think this sounds like a foolproof solution, think again. Your first concern may be that your dog may become afraid of all loud noises. Second, she may become afraid of children, and third, she may become terrified of balloon-like objects such as watermelons and cantaloupe.

Another difficulty with this type of training is that intentionally terrifying an animal is a stumbling block for many owners. Even though they regularly punish and terrify the pet in anger, to do something in such a coldly calculating fashion is emotionally difficult. Ironically, it is the precisely executed punishment that is more effective and more humane. When used correctly, punishment can be reduced to a rarely used, highly effective tool for creating inhibitions. If alternate behaviors are taught with positive reinforcement, the amount of punishment can be further reduced.

Despite the fact that punishment rarely accomplishes the changes in behavior one desired, some people retain an unrelenting belief in its effectiveness. Many pets are traumatized and ultimately ruined by failed rituals of punishment, retribution and reprisal. Before considering punishment to change your pet's behavior, ask, "Is it safe?" After punishing your pet, ask, "Did it work?"

If you do have a problem with your pet, such as darting out the door - eating dangerous or inappropriate objects, jumping on guests, etc., check out the Doggie Repair Kit video.

Gary Wilkes

Copyright 1991-2003 Gary Wilkes - All rights reserved.


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"[My dog] can bark like a congressman, fetch like an aide, beg like a press secretary and play dead like a receptionist when the phone rings." - Gerald B H Solomon, US Congressman, Entry in contest to identify Capitol Hill's Great American Dog, NY Times 9 Aug 86