As a trainer and a professional in the animal welfare field, I am often asked about various training methods. People ask me what works, what doesn’t, what’s quickest, most effective, etc. They seldom ask, interestingly enough, what is the most harmful or potentially dangerous methods and if there are downsides to particular training methods. Yet, inevitably the discussion at some point touches on the use of aversive techniques. Often, the inquiry comes up because the dog owner has observed someone – a friend, a trainer, a celebrity TV personality, a neighbor – using a technique that he/she has a question about.

In answering these inquiries, I often find myself reflecting on all those days spent working in the self-injury and aggression clinic and the bio-behavioral clinic. And on my days spent working in school and group home settings with youth and adults who had emotional and behavioral disabilities. What I learned while working with people in those settings, and during my graduate studies, later became key to my understanding and application of many of the same principles of teaching and working with animals. The sum: positive reinforcement WORKS and has relatively little, if any, negative side effects, and punishment SOMETIMES WORKS and has many, often very detrimental, side effects.

First, let’s identify the fallout of using punishment…

  • Punishing a behavior may temporarily suppress the behavior, but often only in the presence of the punisher. Translation: the recipient of the punishment – be it human or animal – may learn that the punishment only happens when the person delivering the punishment is present, therefore he may still engage in the behavior when the punisher is absent.  How many of you speed on the highway when no patrol cars are around???
  • Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher. What this means is that the person delivering the punishment is reinforced by sense of control he/she feels due to delivering the punishment, and thus may be more likely to deliver the punishment again, even if the behavior doesn’t ‘warrant’ it.
  • In order for punishment to be effective, it may have to be delivered at a high intensity. Translation: mild punishment may not be effective because the dog or human may think, “well, I can tolerate that, and the benefits of doing the behavior are worth the risk of possibly being punished.” Therefore, the punisher – if committed to punishment as a technique – may have to use something particularly aversive to make engaging in the behavior not worth the risk.  Counter surfing is a common example of this – the payoff (that roasted chicken you left on the counter) is worth the mild punishment (verbal reprimand) so your dog may repeat the behavior.  It’s much easier, by the way, to prevent this problem.  See my article titled “Surf’s Up!”
  • Punishment doesn’t teach new behavior; it only teaches the subject (human or animal) what you don’t want. It doesn’t teach alternative or replacement behavior in which the person or animal can still gain the reinforcement he/she is seeking. Let’s use a human example here. In my clinical work at UI, we were often working with children who engaged in life threatening behaviors. A child, who had limited communication skills due to a developmental disability, might bang his head or smack himself with objects when he is frustrated and wants to escape an overwhelming situation. Punishment may – or may not – stop the head banging. Often it didn’t, and that was why the child was there for assessment; so the team could determine the function of the behavior and give the child an alternative way to gain the same reinforcement. In this example, escape was the reinforcement. The clinic team would teach the child a hand sign for ‘please’ and reinforce it with short breaks (an escape from the situation) and the child quickly learned that head banging no longer resulted in escape, but the hand sign for ‘please’ did.
  • Punishment damages the relationship between the punisher and the recipient of the punishment. Let’s face it: it’s hard to like someone who is doing bad things to you.
  • In order for punishment to be effective, it has to be delivered immediately and consistently, and again, at an intensity high enough for the recipient to think twice about engaging in the behavior that results in punishment. News flash for both parents and dog owners: if you find yourself applying the same punishment technique over and over again? It’s not effective.

It’s not that punishment can’t or doesn’t work. In some cases, it does. But, in my experience, the dogs that do respond to aversive techniques would be trained just as easily with positive methods; and the dogs for whom aversive techniques don’t work, often the consequences of using such methods are dangerous to the owner as well as the animal.

I strongly believe it is not necessary to use aversive techniques to train dogs.


c Andrea Kilkenny on September 30, 2009 at 12:02pm  Revised 6/29/16.

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