Are you punishing your dog? No? Are you sure?

loyal purebred dog sitting near tent at campsite
adult white and black jack russell terrier
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Do you have a dog that comes back when you call but stays an arm length + a hand away? You have probably punished your recall. Read on to find out how.

If you read my last post on Positive Reinforcement you’re probably coming into this knowing that a curveball is coming. And you’re right! The trouble with positive reinforcement is that is seldom understood as what it really is, being thought of as nice training, where we now know that it actually means the addition of the something to increase the likelihood a behaviour happening again (take a look at the Positive Reinforcement post here if you need more explanation).

So what exactly is punishment?

Punishment is defined as a consequence that decreases the likelihood of that response occurring in the future

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Iowa
loyal purebred dog sitting near tent at campsite

Now punishment can be mean, just like how we usually think of it, but we don’t have to be hitting to be punishing our dogs.

We’ve just read that punishment means something happening to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour happening again- the opposite of what reinforcement is. Let’s have a chat about positive punishment: adding something to reduce a behaviour.

I’ve got an example for you. Back when Flash was a rowdy teenager his recall became useless, he’d see me waving at him and blatantly pretend he hadn’t. At first I would try to reward him with food, but the more I tried to feed him for coming close, the less he’d come back to me at all. Positive punishment was happening- I was adding food to the recall behaviour, and the likelihood of a recall happening was becoming less and less.

saluki in collar on leash on street under sky

Let’s think about this in humans. I like chocolate a bit, though I get sick of it really quickly, but I love crisps.

Imagine my dear husband calling me into the kitchen every so often. Every time I enter he shoves a piece of chocolate into my mouth. I’ll probably go in the first few times he calls, accepting the chocolate but it won’t be long before I start pretending not to hear him calling me because I really don’t want to be given any more darn chocolate. He has punished me coming to the kitchen when he calls by giving me chocolate: positive punishment.

But what if he gives me a Pringle, or even better yet, a Tyrrells Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar? I can guarantee you I’d be racing to the kitchen every time. That’s positive reinforcement.

It doesn’t matter that giving me chocolate was a nice thing to do, I didn’t really want it and it made me do the behaviour less.

Remember that it is your dog that chooses what is reinforcing and punishing to them- not you. If you’re having trouble teaching something, like I was with teaching Flash a recall, make sure that your “reward” isn’t actually punishing the behaviour you’re trying to create. The solution with Flash was actually to recall him then let him go back off to play again, that was so reinforcing to him that his recall became rock solid and he will come back first time I ask 99.9% of the time.

Another case of accidental punishment came with Polly: a few times I have tried to reward her with a stroke or a pat and she has been mortified and shied away. Polly LOVES her cuddles when we’re relaxing at home, but when it’s training time she absolutely does not want to be touched. Me trying to pet her when she did something right in training made her not want to do the thing again so that she could avoid the touch. I’m sure we’ve all had our own human versions of that scenario!

So what about your dog that stays an arm length + a hand away when you recall them? By any chance have you always just called them back at the end of the walk to put their lead back on? I see that so often on the beach, the dogs come over when called but stay just out of reach. They have figured out that the lead is always added after the recall cue, and that means that the fun is over. How can you flip that around? Think back to Flashy, he loves being let free again. Call them over a few times a walk (but don’t overkill it, a few times is enough), either just take hold of their collar for a moment then let them go again, or stick their lead on for a minute and let them go again. That way the recall doesn’t mean that the fun is over.

I have created a download which you can print out and write down what your dog finds reinforcing and punishing. There probably will be differences at home and when out and about so there’s a box for each. Watch your dog, see what they enjoy doing because that will probably be their reinforcers, and what they aren’t keen on will most likely be punishers. Here’s an example of one I made for Flash.

Flash’s Rewards and Punishments

Now it’s your turn!

It’s good to be creative and really watch your dog’s to see what they really love and don’t. Let me know how you get on!

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