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

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section Two of the Beginner's Course

Behavioral Theory and Procedural Strategies
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Toward a Balanced Perspective on Punishment

There are a lot of phony behaviorists, who are anything but conversant in the intricacies of the discipline, who would have you believe that punishment is always bad, and that positive reinforcement is always good.

They will tell you that punishing a dog can make him mean, which both is and is not true, depending on how you define the word punishment. However, what they don't tell you, possibly because they are unaware of it themselves, is that positive reinforcement can be used just as readily to turn a dog vicious.

Surely you can see that that's true. After all, if you feed and pet a dog and act extremely pleased every time he does some particular thing, then, in effect, you will be strengthening that response through the application of positive reinforcement. But if you feed and pet your dog and act extremely pleased every time he behaves aggressively toward someone, then, through the mechanism of positive reinforcement, you will make your dog mean just as surely as you would by misapplying a series of ill-conceived punishment procedures.

On the other hand, by using punishment in an enlightened way, you can quickly nip aggressive behavior in the bud. Hence, punishment can be used as part of a process that makes your dog gentle, kind, and loving, and positive reinforcement can be used to make the animal aggressive and hateful.

Nonetheless, if you read some of the books written about what has come to be called "positive" dog training, you may come away with the impression that positive reinforcement is always good and, therefore always preferable, and that punishment is always bad and should, therefore, be eliminated from your behavioral tool chest. People who adhere to that school of thought present it as though one were facing a duality in which you must choose between good and evil, but that's not the case.

The fact is that you can use punishment procedures as part of a process in which you transform your dog into the picture of mental health, and you can use positive reinforcement as part of a process in which you turn your dog into a raging psycho.

Both sets of procedures have an equal potential to do good, just as they both have an equivalent capacity to wreak havoc.

The idea that it is somehow beneficial to use positive reinforcement in the absence of punishment is absurd. It's ridiculous. It is the behavioral equivalent of setting out on a trip in a rowboat in which you decide that you are only going to row on the right side of the boat, but never row on the left.

I guess that makes sense if you have somehow become convinced that one side of the boat is good and the other side is evil, but it's not like that.

Counterbalancing the Detrimental Effects of Positive Reinforcement

Not only is positive reinforcement not always good, sometimes you need to punish your dog in order to keep positive reinforcement from having a detrimental effect on his behavior.

For example, if your neighbor's dog answers a bark from your dog with a bark of his own, that may be all it takes to reinforce your dog's barking behavior. If the dogs start barking back and forth and you do nothing, that will allow your dog to receive positive reinforcement from your neighbor's dog for barking problematically.

The fact is that the more time your dog spends engaging in any given misbehavior, and the more reinforcement he receives for doing whatever it is he is doing, the harder it will be for you to get it stopped.

For that reason, unless you are doing it as part of the training process, it is essential that you always remember the golden rule of dog training and accordingly, you must never allow your dog the opportunity to misbehave in the first place. But when misbehavior does occur, it is essential that you spoil your dog's good time by turning the event into an unpleasant experience. Should you fail to counterbalance the reinforcing properties of your dog's misbehavior, you will soon find that the world around you is untraining the animal faster than you can train him.

That is one of the reasons why, to the extent possible, all misbehavior should always be immediately punished.

Think back now and reflect on what we mean we speak of "punishing" your dog. We need to be clear on the fact that when we speak of punishment, we are just referring to taking some non-violent action that will make your dog feel somewhat emotionally upset. We are NOT making reference to any sort of physical abuse, nor do we advocate such an approach.

The Rule of First Responses Revisited

The rule of first responses says that the consequence of a first response will carry sway over the dog or person who made that response that is almost incomprehensibly out of proportion to the influence that consequence would have carried had the response been previously well established.

Be they canine or human, what someone has done in the past is by far the best predictor of what they will do in the future. That's why it is that the best way to handle a problem with your dog is not to ever let it get started. If your dog hasn't done it in the past, or if it was an unrewarding experience the one and only time he did it, he is much less likely to want to give it a try again in the future.

That means that by dispensing just a tiny bit of punishment as your dog is making a problematic first response, you can save both yourself and him from the minor ordeal you'll have to go through to get that same behavior stopped later on, after it has had time to become well established.

For example, successfully bark training a dog who has been many years in the habit of barking recreationally, could require you to make a hundred trips or more out to the yard to dispense an aversive, before the dog finally gives it up and falls silent.

And that's providing that you go about it in the most efficient way possible, using a full-court-press that includes a schedule of continuous punishment. If you went about it in a haphazard way, you could end up dispensing aversives thousands of times over the course of many years, and still not be able to get the barking stopped.

However, that same dog could have been successfully bark trained with one, single dispensation of punishment, providing that the correction was made the very first time the dog barked inappropriately. That is especially true if the first offense and the resulting correction take place during your dog's critical stage of development.

Strategic Punishment

Many people start life with their new puppy, determined to be infinitely patient with the little guy. Unfortunately, in a manner consistent with a perspective of infinite patience, they then fall into the habit of just letting misbehavior slide, as their pup begins emitting one undesirable response after another. Thereby, giving problematic behavior the opportunity to become firmly rooted.

Then, a few months later, as the dog runs wild, exasperation runs deep, and patience runs out, they decide they need to do something to address their dog's lack of living-with-humans skills. But by then, the problematic responses are so entrenched that trying to get them stopped at that point is like pulling teeth.

Don't make that mistake.

In the critical stage, by upsetting your dog just once at exactly the right moment, you can often completely eliminate a response that would otherwise develop into a lifelong behavior problem.

You would be a fool not to take advantage of that, especially when you take into account the fact that problems that first get started in the critical stage tend to be particularly tenacious if allowed to develop and take root.

Punishing strategically, early on, then, is the best way to ensure that you will have little need to punish later on in your dog's subsequent stages of development.

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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