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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Punishment is Mother Nature's Way of Saying - Don't Do That

On a previous page, while noting that positive and negative reinforcement are the inverse of one another, I gave the example of your dog leaving the outdoors and going into the house, because he was uncomfortably cold when he was outside.

In that example, the dog went into the house because doing so allowed him to get rid of the cold, which was something that he did not want. Therefore, because leaving the yard allowed the dog to get rid of something that he did not want, we say that his leaving the yard response was negatively reinforced.

However, while the response of leaving the cold yard was negatively reinforced, at the same time, the response of going back into the house was positively reinforced, because it allowed the dog to get warm, which was something that he did want. That is why we say that positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are the inverse of one another.

At this point, it is essential to note that it was the punishing cold that brought an end to the dog's response of being in the yard in the first place. And it was the punishing cold that precipitated the paradigms of negative and positive reinforcement that followed, which then, caused the dog to leave the cold yard and go into the warm house.

That is the mechanism whereby the laws of nature determine the course that everyone's behavior must follow. If mother nature makes your current situation aversive through the application of a punisher, while she simultaneously increases the relative desirability of an alternative course of action through the dispensation of reinforcement, then, that will serve to direct the course of your behavior, much the same as the simultaneous opening and closing of sluice gates serves to direct the course of a body of water as it flows through an irrigation system.

On the Integrated Nature of Behavioral Procedures

Thus, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment procedures act in unison and/or trigger one another in an interactive fashion. But let's not forget about the second component of the formula for changing behavior, our old friend, the extinction procedure.

Any time you punish a response that is supported by some ongoing source of reinforcement, you are likely to find that an extinction procedure kicks in as well, even if it was not your intention to implement that paradigm.

To understand how that works, let's go back to the example of your dog and your neighbor's dog reinforcing one another's vocal behavior by barking back and forth. Your dog is barking along with your neighbor's dog because he enjoys it. Hence, joy is the reinforcer.

However, if you respond to your dog's problematic barking by going to where he is and making him upset enough to transform the event into an unpleasant experience, in the process you will simultaneously make it impossible for him to enjoy the the barkathon. Hence, in effect, you will have blocked the reinforcer for the target behavior, whether or not that was your intention.

Thus, even though you were focused only on dispensing punishment, an extinction procedure came along for the ride as an inextricable part of the conditioning process.

On top of that, consider the fact that withholding the rewards to which your subject has become accustomed, which is the very definition of an extinction procedure, is almost always, at least to some extent, an aversive experience. Therefore, every extinction procedure is a potentially punishing experience.

Thus, we see that all of the behavioral procedures are inextricably intertwined, and for that reason, in the natural world, those procedures move and act in concert, much like the interlocked gears in a machine, that must always rotate as one.

You can't remove your hand from a glove without simultaneously emptying the glove. Behavioral procedures are like that. They encompass both the thing, and the inverse of the thing, with each simultaneously driving its opposite counterpart.

One can see, then, that eliminating all punishment and all punishing stimuli from your dog's life and training regimen is unnatural, not to mention impossible and altogether counterproductive. To even try to do it is just silly.

You May Find Next to No Need to Punish

The breeds that are rated the highest for obedience potential all have a couple things in common. First, of course, they are intelligent. But they have a second personality trait that is even more essential to the proper training and socialization of a canine, which is that by virtue of their genetics, they very much want to please their people. And they almost always want to do things the way their people want them to be done.

If a dog comes straight out of the package already wanting to do what you want him to do, the way the high-rated obedience breeds do, then, about all you have to do to get the dog to do what you want done, is to communicate your wishes to him.

The difficulty you face with a dog of that ilk, then, is not so much a problem of misbehavior as it is a problem of communication, because if a dog like that is not in compliance with the program, it is simply because he does not yet understand just exactly what it is that you want him to do.

If you make it a point to respond to your puppy's first, critical stage misbehaviors by making him briefly a bit upset, you will almost certainly find that as long as the dog has some other way to get his needs met, the punished behaviors will never reemerge.

If, on top of being conscientious throughout your dog's critical stage, you also have an animal who wants to please you, all you have to do from there is learn to communicate with the dog effectively, so he will come to understand just exactly how it is that you want him to behave.

Where all of those variables are in place, you often find dogs that are wise, calm, affable, unflappable, and level headed to a fault. There just is not much need to use aversives extensively with such an animal, because they are almost always doing just exactly what they should.

However, should you find that you are dealing with a hard dog who seems to need his share of correction, don't dispair. Rather, forge ahead gently with two things in mind.

Two Things to Keep in Mind

  1. Your dog is not a fragile flower.

  2. You can accomplish some very good things through the use of benign punishment procedures, administered with a gentle bearing.

What You Can Accomplish Through Punishment

In addition to reducing the frequency of a problematic response, or eliminating said response altogether, punishment, in the form of the affliction of some degree of emotional upset, can accomplish the following:

The Perfect Combination

In conclusion of this section, always remember that reinforcing correct behavior both makes punishment for incorrect behavior more effective and less necessary, while a dense schedule of reinforcement will serve to inoculate your dog against the side effects that might otherwise be generated by the use of aversives. Finally, remember that by employing the complete array of behavioral procedures in unison, you can train your dog to maximum effect in minimum time.

This marks the end of the theory and strategies section

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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