What exactly is punishment?
This is not the place to get all technical with semantics and the definitions of punishment. It’s enough to say here that it’s anything the dog doesn’t like, done by us, in order to stop him doing something we don’t want him to do – correction.
Punishment doesn’t have to be wielded with obvious things like a stick, shock collar, water spray or shouting. To a sensitive dog, a warning tone of voice or even a certain look could be punishment. Some might say that psychological punishment is worse than physical punishment, anyway.
Basically, anything imposed on the dog that he doesn’t like, is, to that particular dog, punishment. Being thrown into the river would be traumatic for one of my dogs but heaven to my Cocker Spaniel!
In the case of delightful Collie Staffie cross Banjo, there are things that his humans would never have regarded as ‘punishment’ at all which have been punishing to Banjo. They love him dearly and would never hurt him.
Why is it that today, despite all the evidence, many people still reject the regular use of food for reinforcement when getting their dogs to do what they want and still rely on correction?
One problem with anything aversive is that it can contaminate other things present at the time – or things the dog may associate with the scary event.
Here an illustration of this – not related to Banjo. A wellington boot is dropped by mistake or thrown in anger, scaring the dog; he could then become frightened of all wellington boots, or of anything dropped or thrown, or of the room it happened in, or the washing machine which happened to be on at the time or even of anybody wearing wellington boots.
People can be surprised when they realise something they do is, in fact, punishment
Surely punishing a dog would be something physical – or at the very least, shouting?
‘Punishment’ can be a lot more subtle and the fallout from subtle things that are aversive can be a loss of confidence in general.
Using positive, reward-based and force-free methods doesn’t mean we have a dog without boundaries that can run wild. It just means that the dog learns to enjoy the behaviour that we want because it works best for him, rather than just hitting upon the desired behaviour because it’s the one that doesn’t lead to unpleasant consequences.
Three-year-old Banjo comes over as a rather worried dog. He is easily effected by the emotions of his humans and it’s quite a volatile household with the lady and her two adult sons. Each one is different with Banjo. One son is the disciplinarian and has done a great job with teaching him training tricks, the other son is more sensitive and probably less consistent, and the lady is a pushover! They find it hard to agree on how to treat the dog and this predictably leads to disputes.
One can imagine how this can be confusing to a dog, particular one that doesn’t like raised voices.
Banjo is generally obedient but rewards are seldom used. He is taught to avoid the consequences of being disobedient and even though few dog owners would class these consequences as ‘punishment’, to Banjo they can be.
Of late the young man has introduced ‘time-out’ when Banjo does something unwanted or doesn’t do something he is told to do. Are we sure that Banjo actually knows what it is that he shouldn’t be doing? The man counts down “3-2-1” and then Banjo is shut in the porch.
Apart from learning that the countdown ends up with his being sent to the porch, I doubt whether Banjo always knows why – or is actually learning what he should be doing. Because the counting will sound threatening, he will no doubt stop anything he happens to be doing whatever it is; the counting alone will have quite a high ‘punishment rating’ to a dog like Banjo.
One of the probable fallouts from this ‘time-out’ process is this: Banjo has become scared when the younger brother comes home from work and initially runs and hides. He then behaves in an appeasing manner before settling back to his normal friendly and excitable self. My guess is it’s because he has been on imposed ‘time-outs’ in the porch on one or two occasions when the young man has came in through the front door from work. Negative associations.
Punishment or correction can seem to come from nowhere – out of the blue.
How do we feel when with an unpredictable person who is loving one minute and angry with us the next? I have lived with someone like this and it’s like treading on eggshells and you can’t relax. (Take another look at my favourite video – the poor man doesn’t know when the next punishment is coming or what it’s for).
There is another more obvious example where fallout of punishment (which they may not have regarded as punishment) has affected Banjo. It is probably responsible for his more recent wariness of children.
A young child and her mother came to stay with them for a few days over Christmas. Banjo seemed fine with the child initially – if he was uneasy they didn’t read the signs. The child wasn’t actively supervised all the time and would be pestering him. Banjo growled. Everyone reacted angrily and Banjo would have been frightened.
The dog will not have understood why, despite all his polite warnings, he was eventually forced to growl in order to protect himself. The result, to him, was his humans suddenly acted irrationally and in a way that scared him.
It’s not a big step to conclude that his fear of children approaching him when they are out since this episode is fallout from this ‘punishment’. He has built up a negative association.
They had Banjo from eight weeks of age, and very early on one of the adult sons played light-chasing games. He still regularly ‘entertains’ Banjo by nudging the lampshade to make shadows dance around the walls and floor. Each time someone picks up their mobile phone the dog starts looking for a light to chase, as a mobile phone light has been used for chasing games.
It’s such a shame. Sensitive dogs so quickly get OCD-type obsessions.
The young men will now do all they can to avoid light chasing games and anything else that stirs up their sensitive dog or scares him.
With a more positive and consistent approach by his humans, with all three ‘drinking from the same water bowl’ so that they become more predictable, Banjo is sure to become more confident. More confidence will affect his whole life, particularly when out on walks.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Banjo. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page)