This page on Theory and Strategy is part of the Beginners Course of the
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Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section Two of the Beginner's Course

Behavioral Theory and Procedural Strategies
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Punishment as an Essential Form of Communication

By reacting in such a pronounced fashion, I would bring my dog to an understanding that on the hierarchy of transgressions, he had just gone off the scale.

Not surprisingly, if I was to stand there calmly doing nothing, the way those other dog owners did, my dog would most certainly conclude that I couldn't care less, and that as far as I was concerned, an unprovoked attack on an innocent person was perfectly acceptable.

That is a key point to understand about punishment. It is much more than just a procedure. As is the case with positive reinforcement, whether or not you punish, how you punish, as well as the intensity with which you punish, all communicate an important message to your dog that he is reading loud and clear.

When you don't explicitly say no, the animal hears you say, Okay, go right ahead. I couldn't care less. The fact that the dogs cited in the example would attack someone with their owners standing right there next to them illustrates that point more powerfully than any combination of words could ever do.

If you don't communicate your displeasure when your dog behaves badly, then, how is he ever going to learn right from wrong?

Defining Punishment

In this workshop, when we talk about punishing your dog, we just mean that immediately after he commits a transgression, you should take some action to ensure that he will become just upset enough to ensure that for him, the event will have been an unpleasant experience.

Countering Some Bogus Contentions

There are many pretenders, eager to pass themselves off as behavioral experts, who will tell you that punishment does not work, by which they mean that it cannot be used to change a dog's behavior. But here's the question that you need to ask yourself as you subject that contention to the smell test: If every time your dog engages in some particular activity, it always produces an unpleasant consequence, will your dog continue to engage in that activity?

The answer is: No, of course not. If every time your dog does something, it always produces an unpleasant consequence, then, beyond the slightest doubt, the animal is going to stop doing that particular thing. The only way he would not stop emitting the targeted response in that circumstance would be if all of his alternatives were to produce an even more unpleasant consequences than the one at issue.

Allow me to point out that if your dog stops doing something because doing it always produces an unpleasant consequence, then, by definition, whatever your dog was doing was punishing, and the animal stopped doing it precisely because it was punishing. Therefore, punishment "worked."

The point is that when someone says that punishment does not work and cannot work with a dog, they are, in essence, saying that dogs lack the capacity to learn from having unpleasant experiences, which is of course, laughably absurd.

It is one of those situations in which science confirms that which common sense tells us. If every time your dog does some particular thing, it always turns out to be a bummer, then, sooner or later the animal is going to stop doing that thing. And eventually, he is going to start to develop unpleasant associations with everything to do with that event that, somehow, always seems to go wrong.

Another tall tale oft told by the ignorant, says that even mild punishment, the like of which you find in this workshop, will destroy your dog as it drives him insane with unhappiness - that also is absurd and quite obviously untrue.

In fact, if you work it right, you can punish your dog frequently in a benign fashion and still maintain the animal in a state of almost continual bliss. Let us test that hypothesis with another simple, straight-forward thought experiment.

Would you be upset if something a little bit upsetting was to happen to you today? At first, that may seem like a stupid question, because you might just assume that if something "a little bit upsetting" happens to you that you will just naturally be "a little bit" upset by it. However, that is not necessarily so.

If all the rest of your day leading up to the incident has been a continuous series of unmitigated disasters, one more upsetting event, even if its just "a little bit upsetting," can overwhelm you, due to the cumulative weight of the totality of all the things that already went wrong earlier in the day.

On the other hand, if the rest of the day leading up to the incident in question has been one glorious, jubilant triumphant after another, then, at that point, if something happens that is "a little bit upsetting" it will pale to such insignificance as to be altogether meaningless.

How upset would you be about accidentally tearing your shirt on the day you won ten million dollars in the lottery? How upset would you be about your favorite football team losing an important game on the day that you discover that you have just inherited a large house, a palatial estate, and several expensive cars from a now deceased uncle that you never knew you had? How upset would you be by a rude cab driver on the day that you won five gold medals in the Olympics?

The point is that the more things there are that are going right, the less it will matter if there are, at the same time, a few tiny things that are also going slightly wrong. In fact, if there are enough things going tremendously well, it will not matter at all, in the slightest, if there are also a few little bumps encountered long the way.

Of course, when we start talking about suddenly acquiring great wealth or winning the Olympics, we are bandying about rewards and reinforcers of an astounding magnitude.

Nonetheless, in this instance the analogy still works, because your dog has no perspective whatsoever on the relative importance of your interactions with him.

For all your dog knows, every human being on the planet could be continually glued to their television set, watching the latest video of him being trained. Maybe the fate of the free world depends on your dog learning not to urinate on the neighbor's lawn. Maybe the continuance of all life as we know it depends on him learning how to walk off-lead in the heel position.

Who knows? Your dog doesn't. He has no idea. He only knows what your actions convey to him. If your actions and your reactions to his actions indicate to your dog that by sitting on command, he just saved all humanity from enslavement by space aliens, he will not doubt that it is so.

Believe it. Your dog's training will be as important to him, as he believes that it is to you. No more, and no less.

If you think that your dog's learning and his development of a skill set is a joke, then, you should not be expecting too much from the dog in return. But if you appear to believe that his training is the most important thing on earth, then, the reinforcers you dispense to your dog will carry astounding weight, just as though the two of you were daily in the process of winning the Olympics or acquiring great wealth.

If your dog believes that you are delighted because, together, you and he are succeeding in doing something enormously important, then, in the face of that kind of continual, ongoing, triumphant accomplishment, a few quick corrections that are instantly done and gone will factor in as next to nothing in the estimation of your four-footed pal.

There are those who will tell you that any amount of punishment will instantly turn your dog into a quivering mound of terrified jelly. But really, what is a quick correction in the mind of a dog who is daily in the process of winning the Olympics, acquiring great wealth, and making the earth safe from space aliens?

The fact is, you can inoculate your dog against the potential side effects of punishment by keeping the animal on a dense schedule of reinforcement. By saturating your dog with rewarding stimuli in that fashion, you can fan his enthusiasm for proper behavior while avoiding the pitfalls that might otherwise come from correcting problematic behavior.

That's the beauty of plugging in the formula. You can ride the thing all the way down the road to a well trained dog without so much as triggering neuroses one in Fido.

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This page on Theory and Strategy is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network