A friend once asked me why it’s bad to punish your dog. Shouldn’t we let the dog know that they did something wrong? Good question, my friend! My response to him is.
I could list a lot of arguments against the use of punishment – from classical conditioning of stress responses in the presence of the handler to the ethical aspect of punishing a living being that is totally dependent on us in every feature of their lives. In this text, though I would like to get creative and show you another perspective.
Environment as a set of stimuli
Let’s think about the environment around your dog as the set of stimuli (antecedents) that signals either the availability of the reinforcement of the possibility of being punished. In the first case, the dog would present some behaviour in order to get the reinforcement. On the contrary, the possibility of being punished would make the dog present avoidance behaviours. Now, imagine those stimuli connected to the behaviours with a strong history of reinforcement as green lights and those that trigger avoidance as red lights.
Having this picture in mind, look through the eyes of Fido – a dog that is frequently punished – at his owner’s bedroom. The bed is emitting strong red light because when Fido tries to lie there, his human slaps him and shouts at him. Such a shame, it’s so comfortable… A spot on the carpet in the corner radiates red because Fido has had his nose rubbed in his pee when he had an accident. There’s a cake on the desk, it shines green – it’s food after all and dogs like food, right? When Fido tries to eat the cake, his mistress nags him and wags her finger at him. Possibly after a few of those situations, the cake will start to radiate red light. Now, the only neutral spot in the rooms is the dog’s bed. Nothing unpleasant will happen to Fido if he stays on it. Soon, the bed will be “green” because being there allows Fido to avoid aversives through negative reinforcement. Fido doesn’t really have anything interesting to do around the house anyway, because his master says that available toys might spoil him.
Red and green environment zones
If we make most of our dog’s surroundings “red”, they don’t see stimuli as an opportunity to behave. Instead, they see behaviour and interactions with their environment as risky. The dog that is constantly being nagged and being told off is becoming helpless. No behaviour they present seems to have an impact on their environment. The best thing they can do is to quietly lay down on their bed.
Now, let’s look at the alternative version of the same room. The human’s bed is totally neutral – it’s not payable to climb on it because Fido learnt how to relax on his very comfy dog bed. Her mistress taught him to lay down there using yummy treats and gentle massage. Nothing bad happened though if Fido got to climb on the human’s bed a few times – he was just encouraged to go on his own place and rewarded there. As a puppy, Fido used to be walked outside this many times as it was needed so he doesn’t have any accidents. In the corner of the bedroom, there are dog toys available and a snuffle mat which is often filled with something tasty. This part of the room is really green, it’s always nice to hang out there. When there is a cake on the desk, Fido smells it and runs to his human, because he was taught that the smell of the food means finding his human instead of eating it. This time, Fido was rewarded with meaty chew and he happily carried it to his bed. He feels generally safe in the whole house but his bed has an especially big reinforcement history.
The dog can only see the history of punishment and the history of reinforcement
What makes the second version of the story more pleasurable to read? Antecedents arrangements and positive reinforcement, of course. It’s the humans who are responsible for the environment that the animal lives in. If there are things within the dog’s reach that are “green lights” for him and for us it’s not desirable that he interacts with them, it’s completely our fault. The dog can only see the history of punishment and the history of reinforcement, there is no morality for him. Using positive reinforcement we can teach so many amazing things to our pets. Through positive reinforcement, we create green lights and it doesn’t harm our dog in any way. Also, Fido in the second story has enrichment toys available to him. For more information and professional courses visit tromplo.com/
In conclusion, behaviour happens where the reinforcement flows and we want to follow this idea in our relationships – not only with our dog but also with our partners, children and colleagues. The possibilities when using R+ are endless while punishment only does one thing – suppresses the behaviour.