Punishment Confusion

We were reading a popular mail order pet supply catalog and came across some confusing descriptions of training products. We suspect such confusion is widespread and worth discussing.

In a description of an electronic training collar, the catalog stated that these devices weren't meant to PUNISH a dog, but to correct undesirable behavior. It's clear that in this case the word "correct" means to suppress or stop a behavior from happening. It also states the collars can be used to help reinforce acceptable behaviors.

Could this collar "correct" a behavior without punishment? The answer is no. In psychology and animal behavior punishment has a very specific definition. It is the delivery of some noxious stimulus or the removal of a pleasant stimulus that causes a behavior to decrease or stop. The delivery of the unpleasant stimulus (shock) is what is being described in the catalog as a "correction". By definition this is (positive) punishment.

In every day language punishment has many bad connotations such as it being harmful or frightening. It's understandable that the advertisers in the catalog want their product to sound safe and friendly and not have those connotations. So they say their product delivers a "correction" rather than a shock or other unpleasant stimulus. No matter what it is, if it stops the behavior, it's punishment. It doesn't help people understand how products work by confusing these terms.

Punishing stimuli don't have to hurt an animal or scare him to be effective. In fact, research has shown that if punishing stimuli are too strong and cause pain or fear, the pain or fear may interfere with learning. So it's better for punishers not to hurt or scare an animal.

Can electronic collars that deliver a punishing stimulus be used to reinforce acceptable behaviors? Well, not directly. The shock or loud sound or spray of citronella oil will suppress any behaviors that immediately precede them. But they can also cause some behaviors to increase.

Any alternative behavior that allows the animal to escape or avoid the noxious stimulus will be reinforced. This is known as negative reinforcement – where a behavior increases in frequency when a noxious stimulus is removed. So you could teach your dog to run back to you or to sit at the corner rather than chasing cars, IF those behaviors allowed the dog to avoid the shock delivered by the collar.

It is much more effective to use positive reinforcement to teach an appropriate behavior than to depend upon negative reinforcement of an escape or avoidance behavior that may not be desirable.

What punishment is and isn't and how to use it effectively and humanely are some of the major topics in our telecourse, The Fundamentals of Animal Learning,.  This course is available ON DEMAND, and also as a 4 CD set under the title of How Fido Learns Best.

  • Contact Us

    Animal Behavior Associates, Inc.
    7900 W. Layton Ave. #905 Denver, CO 80123