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What you should do to avoid punishing your dog incorrectly

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Punishment is what you do when you want to reduce the likelihood of a behavior happening again. The problem, as discussed in chapter 1, is that if the punishment—say a swat to the rump or a harsh word—occurs more than a second after the dog did the behavior, he will not associate the punishment with his action, therefore, he won’t learn what you intend to teach. However, he will learn something—and it may not be at all what you intend. Here’s an example. Dorothy was tired of her dog, Angel, pulling on the leash, so she yanked on Angel’s collar as hard as she could whenever the dog pulled. Her little dog adored children, and usually, when Dorothy yanked, Angel was pulling to say hi to groups of children near a school. The punishment worked, and Angel quickly got the message—but it was the wrong message. She associated the pain of being yanked with her efforts to say hi to the kids. That’s what she thought she was being punished for. After only three repetitions, her attitude about little kids changed for the worse. Meanwhile, Angel continued to pull on the leash.

Positive Training, Positive Results

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Numerous recent studies have shown that punishment-based training methods (also known as aversive training) can do more harm than good because they may cause reduced welfare and increased fear and anxiety. Techniques based on positive reinforcement can result in improved learning. Behaviorist and veterinarian Sophia Yin demonstrated in studies done in 2008 that nonaversive, reward-based training techniques were more successful in promoting desired behaviors. In addition, veterinary behaviorist Meghan Herron’s research in 2009 showed a greater number of episodes of aggression directed toward a dog’s owners when punishment based techniques were used in training. And John Bradshaw’s studies in 2004 revealed increased numbers of problematic behaviors in dogs trained using aversive techniques.

Numerous recent studies have shown that punishment-based training methods (also known as aversive training) can do more harm than good because they may cause reduced welfare and increased fear and anxiety. Techniques based on positive reinforcement can result in improved learning. Behaviorist and veterinarian Sophia Yin demonstrated in studies done in 2008 that nonaversive, reward-based training techniques were more successful in promoting desired behaviors. In addition, veterinary behaviorist Meghan Herron’s research in 2009 showed a greater number of episodes of aggression directed toward a dog’s owners when punishmentbased techniques were used in training. And John Bradshaw’s studies in 2004 revealed increased numbers of problematic behaviors in dogs trained using aversive techniques.

When we’re talking about operant conditioning, punishment can be positive or negative. You may ask, “Isn’t all punishment negative?” But behavior scientists use the words positive and negative differently.

Negative punishment means removing something to decrease the frequency of a behavior; of course, it’s most effective if it’s something the dog likes. If Spike, your cute little Rat Terrier, snaps at your guests, you might consider immediately walking away from him and leaving the room. You are removing something he likes (your company) in response to the problem behavior. If your timing is right, Spike will eventually learn that snapping at guests means he loses your attention.

Positive punishment means adding something to decrease behavior. Of course, it’s most effective if it’s something the dog doesn’t like, such as a swat, a yell, or a squirt with a water bottle. But, as we have already seen, positive punishment poses some serious timing issues.

Negative Reinforcement It’s easy to confuse negative reinforcement with punishment, but they’re not the same. Punishment follows the behavior and will reduce the likelihood of the dog exhibiting that behavior again. Punishment is initiated by something the dog did; if he does not jump on the coffee table, you won’t punish him. Reinforcement is also initiated by something the dog did, but you would like to see that behavior continues. For example, if he sits on a mat by the door he gets a reward—that’s positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is something you keep doing to the dog that is unpleasant, until he does what you want. For example, you pull on the leash until he moves toward you. His reward is that you stop pulling. You are then removing something unpleasant (that’s the negative part) to increase the likelihood that the dog will move toward you again (that’s the reinforcement part). Your pulling should increase the probability that he will approach you when he feels the tension on the leash increase. The bottom line is that punishment is intended to decrease the frequency of a behavior, and reinforcement is meant to increase it. The positive means adding something to the situation, and the negative means taking something away.

Avoidance Learning

Dogs can learn to associate good things with an arbitrary stimulus, like a click or the refrigerator door opening. They can also learn to associate an arbitrary stimulus with something unpleasant. This is the basis of much of the older style of dog training, in which a dog may learn to heel to avoid a strong jerk on his neck with a choke collar. Avoidance learning is also the basis for electronic fences. These consist of a buried wire that will transmit a signal to a special dog collar that will sound a tone when the dog is within three feet of the boundary and then if the dog moves closer, administer a shock. The dog learns to stay within the boundaries to avoid a shock.



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