Are Punishment and “Corrections” the Same Thing?

We were reading a popular mail order pet supply catalog and came across some descriptions of training products using incorrect terminology.  We know such confusion is widespread and worth discussing.  We’ll tell you right up front that the take home message is that as professionals, it is important to be precise and correct with the terminology we use.

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 (presumably) noxious stimulus or the removal of a (presumably) pleasant stimulus that causes a behavior to decrease or stop. Punishment is a process or event defined by the outcome.  If the delivery of the unpleasant stimulus (shock), described in the catalog as a "correction", results in the behavior decreasing or stopping completely, by definition this is (positive) punishment.

In every day language punishment often means doing something that is painful, fear-provoking, horrible, or harmful, regardless of  its effect on behavior frequencies.  The advertisers in the catalog want their product to sound safe and friendly so they say their product delivers a "correction" rather than a shock.  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.

While learning theory terminology of positive and negative punishment and reinforcement may be confusing to the uninformed, as professionals it’s what we have to work with.  Our credibility is affected if we can’t use these terms correctly or if we insist on trying to “make up” our own terminology. Yet we see examples of this on the web all the time.

We ran across a blog article* on a dog training site that was attempting to re-define “punishment” and “correction”.  The author stated that there is no place in “positive reinforcement” dog training for punishment, but there is room for “correction”.  He then goes on to define “correction”, based on (definitely a professional publication ha!)  as “a change or substituting something for a mistake or a fault.” 

To further confuse the issue, the author then gives examples of “corrections” including withholding a toy the dog wants, ending a play session, giving a dog a “dirty look” or yelling NO at the dog.  Lo and behold – these are examples of negative and positive punishment (assuming the affected behaviors decrease in frequency).  Talk about a circular argument with no purpose!
And substituting a different behavior for a “mistake” could be counter conditioning, differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI) or of any other behavior (DRO). 

The question to ask is – does use of the general term “correction” to encompass all these very different behavior modification procedures add to, or detract from, our understanding of training procedures and our professional credibility?  We’ll leave the answer to you. 

We should not be afraid of using the word punishment or of using appropriate punishment procedures.  Use of positive reinforcement in training essentially mandates the use of negative punishment.  And positive punishing stimuli don’t have to hurt or scare pets to be effective.  Our Irish setter Coral will stop mouthing her leash when she’s excited if we just say “AGHGH” to her.  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. 

Finally, can electronic collars that deliver an aversive stimulus be used to reinforce acceptable behaviors as the ad in the catalog claimed?  Yes, if we are talking about negative reinforcement.  A dog can be taught to “come’ rather than chase cars, IF coming allows the dog to avoid the aversive stimulus delivered by the collar.  But, use of this approach is fraught with the peril of creating frightened and confused dogs if the timing and intensity of the shock is incorrect.  It is much more advisable to use positive reinforcement to teach an appropriate behavior than to depend upon negative reinforcement of an escape or avoidance behavior.

If you want to delve more deeply into these and other topics any pet professional working with behavior issues MUST KNOW, there’s still time to register for our live 5 session webinar course, “Fundamentals of Animal Learning.” The class started October 23rd, so you can easily watch the first session via replay before we meet again on Sunday the 30th.  On-demand replays of all the sessions will be available for one week after the last class (members of who purchase the course have ongoing access).  Register TODAY at (Pro BEN members should register from within BEN).  Registration fee is at it’s lowest EVER and we will not offer the course at this discounted price again.

**If you want to read the complete article – go HERE.

Read a comment to this article by guest author Dr. Frank McMillan.


  • “Correction” is too often used as a euphemism to make the use of aversive stimuli acceptable to clients/students.

    As a teacher you can mark/grade work which means crossing the mistakes and ticking the correct answers then counting them up to find the mark/score to be awarded. Useful for ranking. Not for much else. It is NOT correction.

    To me a ‘correction’ is rightly ‘showing the student the correct way’.
    You can correct a paper/work by indicating where a mistake was made and writing is either the ‘correct’ answer or give advice to the student of how to it would have been better answered. Or you can ‘correct’ a physical exercise by actually showing the student how the exercise should be done.

    So in dog training, “Correction should be going back a step and working from where the dog actually does perform as wanted.

    It is NOT teaching to only indicate ‘mistakes’ without letting the student actually learn the ‘right’ answer.

    Jenny H

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Interesting definitions and examples of the “correction” word Jenny. Thanks for a thoughtful comment.
    “Correction” is one of those terms that carries a lot of baggage in the dog training world, just like “dominance” and “leadership”. When we hear those terms in other contexts we tend not to take exception to them!
    Suzanne and Dan

  • While much effort has been made (in both human psychological and animal behavior fields) to clarify the definitions of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, the distinctions remain unclear. The main problem is the distinction between “positive” (meant to indicate the “giving” of something to the animal, be it a pleasant or unpleasant stimulus or experience) and “negative” (meant to indicate the “removal” of something from the animal, again, either a pleasant or unpleasant stimulus/experience). But in terms of the individual’s internal experience of net pleasure, the “positive” and “negative” are often not distinguishable, for 2 reasons: (1) defining what is “given” or “removed” is often a matter of semantics, and (2) the giving and removal depend on where the animal is positioned on a pleasure—pain continuum, which is not always knowable. Consider these examples for each. (1) If an animal is outdoors in freezing weather and is allowed indoors where it is warm, this would (in most cases) be a reinforcement for whatever behavior immediately precedes it. However, is the reinforcement a “giving” of warmth (“positive reinforcement”) or a removal of unpleasant cold (“negative reinforcement”)? If a dog performs an undesirable behavior and is immediately confined in a room by him/herself as a punishment, is this a removal of social companionship (“negative punishment”) or a giving of social isolation (“positive punishment”)? (2) If pleasure can be modeled on a continuum running from extremely pleasant to extremely unpleasant, then where the animal “sits” on this continuum defines the “positiveness” and “negativeness” of any reinforcement or punishment. Consider the reinforcement of a tasty food treat. If the animal is in a state of discomfort (i.e., hungry), then eating the food treat is the animal’s attempt to lessen the hunger. In this case, the reinforcement is a “removal” of the hunger (the same thing could be accomplished if the dog had a permanent feeding tube surgically installed in his stomach – inserting food through the feeding tube would “remove” the dog’s hunger). However, if the animal were in a state of comfort (i.e., not hungry), then the dog would eat the treat because of the pleasurable taste (like the person who, even though not hungry, pulls the ice cream out of the freezer and chows down). Here the dog is not trying to rid himself of the unpleasant feeling of hunger, but is rather simply trying to increase the pleasant feeling of tasty food. In this case, giving the dog the treat is not “removing” hunger, but is instead “giving” pleasure. Therefore, the reinforcement provided by the tasty treat is a “negative reinforcement” if the dog is in a hungry state (on the unpleasant side of the pleasure—displeasure continuum) at the time the treat is offered, where the treat is “removing” the hunger; conversely, the treat is a “positive reinforcement” if the dog is not in a hungry state (on the neutral or pleasurable side of the pleasure—displeasure continuum) at the time the treat is offered, where the treat is “giving” pleasure. Hence the “positiveness” and “negativeness” of the reinforcement is wholly dependent upon where on the pleasure—pain continuum the dog’s current mental state exists. In all cases the dog will behave in a way that moves him toward pleasure and away from displeasure, but in each case of being offered a reward the dog will be “starting” at a different place. As a further explanation, consider 2 scenarios: as you continue to provide treats the dog becomes “full,” which ultimately then reaches the point of satiation and the additional consumption of treats loses its reward value (and can even become an aversive if the treat were forced); and the old technique of “increasing the reward value” of a food treat by withholding the dog’s regular food is simply moving the dog further toward the displeasure end of the pleasure-discomfort continuum, such that the dog’s need to “remove” the more intense hunger feeling makes him “more motivated” to behave in a way that gains him the treat. A final comment is that very often the reinforcement is a combination of both “positive” and “negative,” meaning that the dog eating the tasty treat is attempting to both alleviate (“remove”) the unpleasant state of hunger – and hence make the reinforcement “negative” by definition – AND gain pleasure from the tastiness of the treat – and hence make the reinforcement “positive” by definition.

  • PatWhitacre

    Reply Reply

    Your article is right on target. The idea that there is any real solution in assigning a new term to an old definition is at the same time overly simplistic and confusing. It does not make this any easier that the “quadrants” are not as distinct as we might like at times. The example of negative reinforcement of teaching “Come” with the opportunity to avoid a shock would seem to imply that at some point the dog had to experience it to know there was anything to avoid. That “experience” is often provided in response to an undesirable behavior such as continuing to move away or not responding to a cue. Thus adding something noxious, that did not previously exist in the environment, in response to an undesirable behavior. It can take a good deal of creativity to use negative reinforcement without the burden of first introducing a positive punisher.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Well, you are right Pat in that in many situations one behavior is positively punished (sometimes not intentionally) while another is negatively reinforced. To continue with your example – if the dog is told to come and doesn’t, those using a remote trainer would push the button so that doing anything BUT coming is positively punished, and then turning/moving toward the owner is reinforced if it terminate the shock.

    To use R- to teach the behavior would mean the shock is applied FIRST (at a low level), and any motion toward the owner causes it to go away. I’m not advocating this method, just describing it.

  • ” the catalog stated that these devices weren’t meant to PUNISH a dog, but to “correct” undesirable behavior.”

    In addition to this fine article, I would say that it doesn’t matter what the devices are “meant” to do, but what in fact the dog’s perception of them is. Unlike Buddhism, in dog training intent is not all.

    While I agree that the 4 quadrants of learning theory can be confusing, it gets much more confusing when others try to redefine what certain words mean to make things sit better with us (or their customers). One of my dogs loves to be scratched on her flanks, while another is uncomfortable with it–for Maple it is a reward, for Phoenix it is somewhat of a punisher. My intent in both is to touch/massage my dogs, which has nothing to do with how they perceive it.

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