When Reward Becomes Punishment


We all act and interact according to our species (nature) and what we have experienced in our lives (nurture). We subconsciously meld these two things together in order to form our personalities, our likes and dislikes, our fears and our desires. In this realm, we run a parallel with our dogs.

As a species, we tend to be very verbal and very tactile. We are the hugging, patting, kissing species. We often find solace, happiness, and security in the touch of another person. When we have a very close relationship we tgrouphugend towards plenty of hugging, kissing and ‘petting’. We show our excitement or approval through loud verbal outbursts and more exaggerated body movements. Here is where we deviate from dogs and where many training issues as well as behavioral issues can arise.

Dogs are not genetically predisposed to showing affection or approval through the same methods we use. Dogs use their body as their first form of communication. They are masters at body language and they use this language first and foremost when conveying their emotional status to other dogs and to humans. Their language tends towards subtlety, their movements measured.  While they do use verbal communication, it is by far the less used form. As humans, we are not well versed in their body language and quite often misinterpret what they are trying to tell us. This is where many training issues arise.

Let’s talk about two components of training; punishment and reinforcement. Punishment means that the behavior will diminish and reinforcement means that the behavior will increase. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not. The
reason for this is the interpretation of the two as they are applied to the behavior. Simply speaking, what you may considepetting headr reinforcement, your dog may consider punishment.

Often, people’s response to a dog doing well is patting, hugging, petting and even kissing. Since these are some of the human activities that dogs often find discomfort in, the consequence for the behavior is punishment, npetting head 2ot reinforcement as was intended. Since the dog perceives it as punishment, the behavior decreases and the human is left puzzled.

As I said earlier, not all dogs react to the petting, hugging, kissing and patting the same way. The ones that completely dislike it are very good at getting their point across through what’s known as a ‘distance creating behavior’. We will go over that behavior in another article as it is not relevant to this one. The dogs that tolerate it are the dogs central to this article because they can be the hardest to read and therefore the easiest to misinterpret.

If you are training a behavior and either the dog ‘isn’t learning’, or the dog’s reliability in the behavior is decreasing, you may have a punishment versus reinforcement miss-communication. If this is the case, stop training and analyze the situation. Look at what you were using as a reinforcer, and then think about your dog’s reaction to it. Were you patting the dog’s head? If so, did the dog lower his head, move to the side or lift his nose so his head was almost vertical? Did you hug your dog for a job well done and when the hug was over the dog moved away?  Did the dog squirm in your arms? Did you try to kiss the dog and the dog turned away? Backed up? During or after your reward or praise did the dog lick his lips? Yawn? All of these reactions are ones that can indicate the dog considering your reward uncomfortable and therefore a punishment.

If after your review of the situation, you decide that your dog was feeling punished, what do you do with the damaged cue? If you continue to use the same cue with a different reinforcer, you will have to overcome the dog’s prior association with what was considered a punishment. Rather than do that, make things easier on both of you, pick a new cue word for the action and use your new reinforcer.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what you consider a reinforcement or punishment, you are not performing the behavior. Your dog’s interpretation is the only important one in this situation. Your dog learns by association, to be successful, your dog must associate his behavior when cued with a positive consequence.

Happy training!!

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