Corrections, Reprimands and Punishment
What is Punishment? The psychological definition of punishment is an unpleasant event that follows a behavior which results in decreasing that behavior in the future. If the behavior doesn’t decrease, it isn’t punishment by definition.
The terms “correction”, “discipline” and “reprimand” are just euphemisms for attempts at punishment. A stern “No”, spanking, jerking the leash, spraying a squirt bottle, and shaking a can of pennies are all common examples of what my clients have tried before calling me for help. Why do we do it? We humans have a knee-jerk reaction to respond negatively to our dogs’ misbehavior. It helps to immediately relieve our own frustration, fear or anger. Have you ever scolded your dog while someone is watching because you are embarrassed and want to convey that you are at least trying to be responsible? I have!
In order for punishment to be effective, it must meet ALL 5 of the following:
1. Must be immediate – when the dog decides to do the unwanted behavior or while he is doing the unwanted behavior, not a second later.
2. Must be consistent – every single time the unwanted behavior occurs. Missing even one time can create a gambler if the behavior is highly self-reinforcing (as most unwanted behaviors are).
3. Teach an alternative behavior – and reward it generously. Teach this before punishing.
4. Use the correct intensity – the behavior should stop within 3 to 5 trials without causing side effects such as anxiety, fear, defensiveness or aggression. This is a risky guessing game.
5. Punishment must cease the exact moment your dog stops the behavior. Timing is critical. Otherwise you will confuse your dog or make him neurotic.
It is extremely difficult to meet all 5 criteria perfectly, even for professionals. Not meeting all 5 criteria can cause unforeseen problems later on.
Positive reinforcement (rewards that matter to your dog) is more effective than reprimands at changing behavior.
Teach your dog what to do instead of what he is currently doing and treat it like trick training (fun). Reward (reinforce) often and generously. We humans tend to be stingy with rewards. Overcoming this tendency separates the professional from the novice. You don’t even have to be super-precise with positive reinforcement, unlike with punishment. It’s good to reward unpredictably like a slot machine as long as your dog gets rewarded often enough so he doesn’t give up. Just trying to getting rid of a bad behavior by suppression creates a behavioral vacuum that doesn’t address the dog’s need to do the unwanted behavior. He’ll just find another way if you don’t provide or train an appropriate alternative. Punishment alone seldom solves the problem and creates headaches later on.