Intent matters – why is punishment addicting to the punisher?

Intent Matters – essay on why punishment remains so prevalent as a first tool in training despite the serious fallout on both the student and trainer.

Here’s the basis: If my intention is to stop or reduce any behavior, my answer will be punishment. By definition punishment decreases a behavior.

When my intention is focused this way I will be affected by becoming frustrated, angry, aggressive or fearful, because actions, intent and body posture drives our own emotion. And my ‘acceptable’ answers will become more invasive, more disturbing because aversive-type punishment needs to be ‘horrible’ to actually create fear of doing something in another creature. And if or when it works, even temporarily, I will experience significant release of those unpleasant emotions and have satisfaction that all the trouble was worth it. Hence, addiction to punishment-type answers to problems.

And then I will repeat the same process the next time and the next. Never really resolving or clarifying the what’s right and what’s not liked in issues of aggression or jumping up or barking or coming or going or taking things or chewing or pulling   or… you name it. And often creating new, more difficult problems like running away, hiding to do undesirable things, serious aggression …

Remember there are times and places for barking, carrying, pulling and chewing and pottying and jumping on things, etc. You may want these, you may have difficulty getting them back if your dog is afraid to do them in front of you.

If l just keep doing what I have done and expecting a different result and thinking ‘this dog is a problem,’ then I’m just a victim of the dog.

Common side-effects to using punishment* as an answer. Anxiety seems prevalent in many of the dogs I’m seeing lately. All sorts of worry, fear, short attention span, lack of trust, dog-to-dog aggression displays out of fear matched with their humans who are worry, fear, anxiety displaying too. What’s going on?

What does your dog actually know how to do? How many people or dogs has your dog met well (not wildly)? How many places has your dog seen and can he/she do stuff you ask for there? Does she/he want to? Will your dog try new things? Or are they suspicious of anything new you introduce?

Dogs should want to do stuff with people (with their people), if they don’t then the relationship is marred. The desire to do stuff is primary…basic otherwise you would have to ‘make them do it.’ And what fun is that?

A basic concept of behavioral thinking and study is ‘what is rewarded, reinforced or given attention – increases.’ Conversely punishment, by definition decreases behavior – but scaring or hurting or shaming actions have side effects: fear, aggression and limits learning. Yes, your dog will be more fearful, more aggressive and also ‘dumber.’ Maybe if you have really good timing you may be able to stop an unwanted behavior and if you have the intensity just right, and if the dog doesn’t make an unwanted association to something else … so are you really skilled? Do you understand the down side and what to do if it occurs?

Marketing, profit and big money in sales for tools that are used to punish, for example;  Electronic training collars, ultrasonic, no bark collars, electric fencing. In a small magazine of dog supplies there were 31 different remote punishing devices that shocked or sprayed or sounded to scare dogs.  The marketing works, despite the behavioral science which provides different answers and despite the numbers of behavioral problems produced. The marketing says it’s easy to have a well-behaved dog, just use this product. You know the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And dog training equipment is mostly different styles of “hammer” punishment tools.

I’ve gotten to work with a few dogs who were seriously badly affected by electronic devices – one use and the dog wouldn’t go near her owner for weeks, many uses and the dog got so anxious he needed psych medications, aggression towards the owner, crazy behavior, really not coming – as in leaving, and of course biting people and dogs, shaking so badly at a loud noise that was similar to the collar warning that the family thought it was a seizure.

If I focus on dieting, I end up needing to diet more – this is true, by the way, since the biggest predictor of weight gain is having previously dieted. Most diets are self-punishing tools. Conversely, if I focus on wanting/doing something, I see it more often, my awareness of it has increased, my creativity increases toward getting it/doing it.

This function of reward, reinforcement, attention is very important to understand and use wisely. It is easily turned backwards towards  ourselves and the animals we say we adore. The intention, the focus of the behavior change is the important piece. If intention is to stop the behavior or decrease it, then the trainer is focusing on punishment…by definition. If the intent is to create an alternate behavior, then the focus is on reinforcement.

When the focus is on stopping something and it doesn’t stop, people get angry, fearful and frustrated, which turns to disgust, rage, serious fear and/or apathy if continued too long.  Just think of the appalling case, recently in the news, of the man who used a hammer to bludgeon his dog to death because it pooped in the house … sounds like unreasoning rage to me.

Being aware is a good thing. Looking for root causes is a good thing. Being able to name something as a problem or an issue is a good thing. Getting stuck at that point…not good. And getting stuck is where the punishment answers pop up.

Stuck, stuck, stuck and afraid and anxious and embarrassed. I have been surprised at myself becoming embarrassed over dog behaviors sometimes. Here I thought I was beyond that, obviously not quite. Taking a fat, dog-aggressive dog into the vet clinic seems to make me want to explain, ‘no this dog is not mine.’

And I’m a trainer, I can imagine that the real owner is mortified. But the only sure way to resolve a problem without bad side effects is to temporarily prevent and manage the behavior until the new reinforcement (training) of the behaviors  that are wanted are in place. (Or go into permanent hiding always managing, never fixing.)

Let’s say a dog is barking, growling or somehow acting wild when other dogs or people or motorcycles or livestock appears. The first time a pup sees these things it’s not unusual for them to be surprised or fearful and want to hide or want to bark at them. And it’s OK for you to tell them all is well, to kindly joke about it, to give them a reassuring pat, to let them look or to give them extra space to consider the situation and then to distract them with food or a game or toys.

On the other hand it’s not good to over react, or encourage their fear or bravado or to scold or jerk/hurt them as if they should know better, why would they know better? The important focus is to find the parts of their behavior that you want to have and reinforce those as they occur. It’s also important to remember what you just found out so you can use this as a prediction of future behavior (so you’re more ready the next time with the food, toys or game).

Is there a way to always be positively rewarding? No, but the aim is to figure out how to reward behaviors that you like, how to reinforce behaviors that are opposite of those that are unacceptable.

Most of the junk your dog is doing has been rewarded or set up – unknowingly or maybe foolishly knowingly by you. But just because you trained the ‘not so good’ things, doesn’t mean you can’t re-train new stuff. And you don’t need to start by adding punishment.

So the next time you hear yourself starting to reprimand your dog for _________________ (you fill in the blank), review, ‘What do I really want my dog to be doing?’ Then start focusing on and rewarding that and you will be training them a better behavior and if you persist your dog will be smarter, you’ll like them and yourself better and the earlier problem will actually be gone.


(*note in this essay the word punishment is used as it is popularly understood – all levels from soft to hard of hitting, shocking, scaring, yelling, saying no, complaining at them, angrily using their name, jerking, kicking, choking…not in its full behavioral terms which includes negative punishment ,which is fairly benign and effective in changing behaviors and is the taking away of something desired – especially attention – i.e. dog jumps up on me, I ignore or turn away = I have taken away my attention,)


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