“No! Get off the table!” “No! Give me that!” “No! Stop bothering him or I’ll spray you!”

All my life I’ve dealt with people saying to their dogs “No!” and I’ve done it myself many times. I thought it was a punishment. But was it? Punishment is a perplexity:

■ The word has multiple and contradictory definitions.

People who think they are punishing their dogs often don’t do it. They just interrupt the current behaviour.

We humans have a strong desire to respond to perceived wrongs with punishment. This is probably because we have a fast and intuitive brain process. We are programmed to retaliate.

All of this can confuse us and trap us in unproductive behavior patterns with our dogs. But before we can do anything, we need to understand and agree on some definitions.

The term “punishment” is defined differently in common usage and in behavioral science. This leads to many problems of communication and understanding.

The dictionary gives two definitions of the traditional (general) meaning of punishment:

  • The infliction or imposition of punishment in retaliation for an offence.
  • Suffering, pain or loss as punishment.

This indicates that a punishment is an action taken against a person who has committed some kind of offence. In this sense of punishment, there is no mention of rehabilitation and, more importantly, no reference to future behavior. Punishment is simply the deliberately unpleasant action taken by the punisher against the offender.

Let us now compare this with the definition of behavioral science. Miltenberger (2008) lists three parts of the definition of punishment:

  1. a specific behaviour occurs.
  2. a consequence immediately follows the behaviour.
  3. as a result, the behaviour is less likely to be repeated in the future. (The behaviour is mitigated).

Parts 1 and 2 relate to the general definition of the sanction, or appear to do so. But Part 3 is different and particularly difficult to consider because of its traditional meaning.

In behavioural science, punishment only occurs when the target’s behaviour is reduced in the future. This means that at the time the action is carried out (part 2 above), we cannot know whether or not a behavior has been punished. We will only know this if we observe the animal’s behavior over time.

To complicate matters further, there are two types of sanctions defined in behavioural science.

  • Negative punishment: after a behavior, something desirable is removed, making it less likely to happen.
  • Positive punishment: an aversion is added after a behavior, making it happen less often.

Both punishment processes are aversive, and both have the potential for side effects. But the use of negative punishment is acceptable to some trainers on the basis of positive reinforcement. An example is closing the hand around a treat when the dog tries to take it while learning to “leave” it.


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