“I feel the need….the need for speed!” Maverick & Goose, Top Gun
The dream of an overnight fix which gives maximum results for minimum effort is seductive. Who wouldn’t want to lose a stone in a week or get rich quick? It’s so tempting to believe that there’s a quick, easy solution to a problem. This is as true in relation to our dogs as it is to other aspects of life.
One of the reasons often cited in favour of punishment based training is that it’s quick. And that promise of speed can be very tempting if you are struggling with challenging behaviour from your dog. Whilst it’s undeniably true that punishment stops behaviour (and can stop it quickly) it’s worth remembering that speed is only one piece of the puzzle. So the question is….is a possible quick fix worth the use of punishment?
PUNISHMENT LEAVES A VACUUM
Punishment stops behaviour, it doesn’t build it. And when one behaviour ceases that leaves a vacuum which has to be filled by something else.
All behaviour happens for a reason. However a punishment based approach often doesn’t address that underlying reason which means your dog may seek to meet that need in another, potentially equally unwanted, way. So the dog who is punished for jumping up to get attention may now bark for attention. Or the puppy who is punished for toileting in the house just learns to wait until you are not in sight to toilet.
So while punishment may quickly eradicate one behaviour it doesn’t teach the dog what we’d prefer him to do instead and we may find ourselves facing another, different, behavioural issue. When one behaviour ceases another aberrant behaviour may pop up, like a game of behavioural Whac-A-Mole.
WHEN PUNISHMENT STOPS, BEHAVIOUR RESURGES
When the threat of punishment recedes the unwanted behaviour may reappear*, especially if the underlying reason for the behaviour hasn’t been addressed. Initial behaviour change may be quick but in order to sustain that change the punishment, or at least the threat of it, must continue.
Think about the times you’ve sworn never to overindulge again when you’re suffering from a raging hangover. How quickly does your resolution fade once you feel better? Or consider why the appearance of a police car in your rear view mirror causes you to slow down but, as soon as it’s gone, you speed up again.
Not only does the punishment need to continue to remain effective, it often also has to escalate too. Your dog can become habituated to the punishment and so, over time, it becomes less effective. What worked last week no longer has the same effect. Which means in order to remain effective the punishment has to increase in intensity and so it goes on…
(* it is possible that a single instance of punishment is enough to suppress a behaviour long term. However, for that one time learning to happen the punishment generally has to be severe )
PUNISHMENT HAS FALLOUT
Punishment doesn’t happen in isolation and if it’s being used to change behaviour it’s important to consider what else might be coming along for the ride.
- Punishment runs the risk of damaging your relationship with your dog. Would you trust someone who habitually punishes you? Is that the relationship you want with your dog?
- Punishment creates fear and uncertainty. Learners can become hesitant and reluctant to engage with the punisher.
- Punishment can become very reinforcing for the punisher. When we punish a dog and it works (especially if it works quickly!) it becomes very tempting to jump straight to using punishment the next time.
- Punishment can generalise to other things. A punished dog may come to associate the pain or discomfort of punishment with other things in the environment. A dog who is corrected each time he barks at the doorbell may come to associate visitors with pain or fear and begin to react accordingly.
Are you prepared to risk all of this just for the sake of speed?
A QUESTION OF ETHICS
Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. And just because something aversive works quickly doesn’t make it ok if there are other, less invasive, options. And when it comes to behaviour change there are almost always other options.
In my experience the need for speed is almost always for the human’s convenience. And our convenience should never come at the expense of our dog’s experience.
SLOW IS SMOOTH AND SMOOTH IS FAST
When speed is cited as a reason to use punishment in training the unspoken assumption is that using positive reinforcement is slow. But that’s a misconception.
Effective control and management techniques (which limit rehearsal of an old behaviour whilst a new behaviour is being learned) combined with effective positive reinforcement training can give respite from unwanted behaviours and produce effective results in a short space of time. Yes…it takes time for new behaviours to become well rehearsed. But it is the time spent strengthening these new behaviours which avoids the resurgence of old unwanted behaviours in the long term. It is the time taken to build a strong history of reinforcement which will make those new behaviours robust & reliable. Rather than rushing towards a final goal which can only be sustained at some cost we can lay strong foundations and build robust, sustainable behaviours while also building a strong relationship with our learner.
The amount of time taken to change behaviour is one piece of the puzzle. But it’s not the only piece and it’s far from the most important piece. Quick fixes rarely stick and run the risk of causing other problems. It’s easy to quickly create something which appears substantial and impressive. But is it sustainable? Is there a cost to your dog? Is there a cost to your relationship? Is it addressing the underlying cause of the behaviour?
Tempting as it may be to wish otherwise sustainable, long term change doesn’t happen overnight. Not for us. And not for our dogs.
Happy Training, Aileen x