Mark's Dog Blog

The Act of Punishment

punishment This is not punishment, its an act of abuse!

Many ask why are a majority of my posts about punishment? Well, isn't that the major issue we have now in regards to raising our dogs correctly, not understanding the appropriate application and the misrepresentation of "positive punishment" and "negative reinforcement" (P+ & R-)? Aren't these terms now synonymous with anger, aggression and pain, and therefore considered abusive, when in fact these learning principles have nothing at all to do with P+ and R-?

Firstly, I'd like to state, that negative reinforcement is not punishment. Negative reinforcement is the act of taking something away to encourage a behaviour. Something that the animal doesn't like, for example, discomfort. Punishment on the other hand, is the act of applying enough discomfort paired with an unwanted behaviour to discourage that behaviour from being repeated.

Those positive only ideologues that are against administering punishment (they really have little understanding of its true meaning and application), will post photos like I have with this post to pull on emotional heartstrings, and use terms like beating and kicking dogs, aggressive alpha rolling, shutting dogs down, learned helplessness, fear based training, etc, etc. This is an extremists view of reality, and not the true reality. For them, its either ALL or NOTHING, its either FULL ON, or NOT AT ALL, there is no middle ground or balance for these ideologues.

No balanced dog trainer accepts abusive training methods, however, we need to draw a line in the sand to understand where abuse starts, and not automatically assume that ALL punishment is abusive. If this was the case, that all positive punishment is indeed abusive, then how has life on planet earth survived for billions of years? We as humans have the advantage of verbal communication and are privileged with very evolved and complex reasoning ability, that our dogs unfortunately do not have to our level. We as humans can communicate instant discomfort with just mere words, hence physical punishment is generally not required for such an evolved species as humans. Try telling your dog that he is grounded for a week, or will lose toy privileges for a few days due to its current or past behaviour! Try telling a dog that if he bites you again, he will not get dinner tonight, or will need to move out of home due to his aggressive behaviour, if it doesn't stop! Instead we have to communicate consequences in a way a dog instinctively understands.

Positive punishment, is nothing more than applying an unpleasant consequence (an aversive) paired with the current behaviour, at just above the dogs "current" threshold of "discomfort". Positive punishment is instant and lasts for no more than a second. If punishment lingers on, or is administered to far above the discomfort level in that moment, its meaning can become lost to the dog, and will generally cause the dog to become overly confused and fearful of the punisher.

A dogs current arousal and emotional state dictates its current threshold of discomfort, no different to us humans. The more aroused or stimulated a dog is, the higher its threshold of discomfort, and the stronger more intensive its behavioural responses. This is why its important to always be aware of your dogs current arousal level and emotional state, so if we need to punish a behaviour, its applied before the dog becomes overly aroused or stimulated, hence lowering the level or strength of our aversive response. How much easier is it to punish a child when it is in a calm emotional state? Try communicating calmly with a child that is throwing a tantrum, or has become hyper-aroused and overly stimulated. A dog is no different. Just as a young child doesn't fully understand its emotional state, a dog also has no understanding what emotional state or state of arousal it is currently in, it just acts and reacts accordingly. As stated, emotions and arousal levels dictate the intensity and strength of a behaviour, and therefore, we need to be a barometer for our dogs arousal and stimulation levels, jumping in early, and not waiting until the behaviour is out of control due to a hyper-aroused and overly stimulated state of being, that the dog itself  finds extremely difficult to pull itself out of.

Punishment is not abuse. However, the incorrect application of it can make the action abusive. From an instinctive perspective, discomfort needs to be escaped from or avoided, whether it be psychological, mental or physical discomfort. Causing pain, in my opinion, is administering discomfort to far above the dogs threshold in that moment. When a dog is hyper-aroused and overly stimulated, the dogs threshold of discomfort increases way beyond what it would  be when the dog is in a calmer state. When a dog is in a calm state of being, what is perceived as "painful", may barely register as annoying, or not even be perceived, when in an overly stimulated and aroused state.

The administering of punishment is not to cause "pain", its to cause a level of discomfort that the dog feels the need to avoid or escape. When we punish a dog to far above its discomfort level, and therefore feeling pain, we have in my opinion, in most cases, taken punishment too far, and therefore the act of punishment would be considered abusive in many instances.

Its important to understand the principles of punishment in the way I have outlined above, and not listen to the positive only and force free extremists, as they are doing more harm to our relationship with our dogs, than the correct administering of positive punishment could ever do. By denying this learning principle, that helps guide our dogs to make better choices, we cannot ensure the welfare of our dogs, nor the welfare of those that interact with our dogs.

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