Canine Psychology & Shaping Behavior: Part 4 – Reinforcement & Punishment

Required pre-watching:

As we move through this deep dive series in Canine Psychology and Shaping Behavior, our understanding of how our canine fur-babies perceive the world around them should be starting to become clear. We have talked about their brain capacity, their primary method of learning, and the key principles of motivation. The next element that we want to understand is the concept of Reinforcing and Punishing behavior. Without doubt, this is the most controversial topic in the animal training world, is highly polarizing amongst trainers, and often wildly misunderstood by the vast majority of owners. This video takes a calm, realistic and practical look at the concepts of reinforcement and punishment, clarifying for everyone what they really mean and what you as a fur-baby parent need to think about, BEFORE implementing either.

Let’s start out with a definition of Reinforcement:

Reinforcement is an outcome that strengthens behavior either in intensity or frequency, or both.

Several key things to note when considering Reinforcing behavior:

  • A reward MUST strengthen behaviour to be considered reinforcement, but often it doesn’t, and this is where the average dog owner falls down in their training. Often people do not take the time to think about what it is that the dog really wants. Does your dog want the treat, or does it REALLY want to keep playing with Fido?
  • If the reward does not meet the expectations of the dog, you will likely see a decline or reverse in the strength of the behavior. Why would your dog work/improve for something that has less value?
  • The dog must be absolutely crystal clear about what they are getting the reward for. Any confusion here leads to all sorts of problems. If you are not sure what can cause that confusion, go back and look at the Principles of Motivation video, it provides some great insights.

Now, lets take a look at Punishment. Again, lets start off with a definition:

Punishment is the occurrence of an aversive outcome that weakens a behavior either in intensity or frequency, or both.

Just as rewards must strengthen behavior to be considered Reinforcement, an aversive outcome or correction that does not reduce the intensity or frequency of the behavior cannot be considered Punishment. In fact, if the outcome fails to meet the dog’s expectation of a “Just Punishment” it is merely desensitizing the animal to the correction, making it less and less effective over time – this is inhumane and a waste of time. On the other hand, if the correction is excessive in the dog’s mind, it will more than likely be unable to process it and fear will be the result instead of education. This is also inhumane and likely to cause you substantially more trouble. If you are reading this and starting to think you are playing the lead role in Goldilocks & The Three Bears, you are not alone.

Several key things to note when considering Punishing behavior:

  • A “Just Punishment” must reach the expectations of the dog and override any reinforcement it is getting from exhibiting the behavior. E.g: if it’s a food related behavior, the dog is intrinsically getting reinforced by eating something that he shouldn’t, any correction needs to overwhelm that underlying reinforcement.
  • Do not be angry, upset or disappointed when punishing your dog. The correction will likely be inhumane, inappropriate, excessive and untimely. AKA: You will fail dismally and it will not improve the situation or help the dog learn and has the potential to make things worse. This is why human judges in court can’t just whip up any old punishment for an offense. There are strict rules and guidelines around what is a suitable punishment.
  • With the above in mind, if you do feel like Punishment is needed, take a moment to think about it IN ADVANCE, write down what behaviors are unacceptable, talk about it with all members of your family unit, and decide IN ADVANCE what is the appropriate punishment for those commonly encountered issues. When you are cool calm and collected thinking about these things, you are much more likely to be successful in helping your dog understand what is an unacceptable behavior.
  • Punishing a behavior that stems from a stimuli that the dog is afraid of is a very very very very slippery slope and almost guaranteed to end badly and has the potential to result in an increase of fear and/or aggression. These are two things to avoid. As an owner it is your job to protect your dog from things they are excessively afraid of. We cannot expect anybody or anything to learn effectively when they are deeply fearful.
  • The concept of “No Result” is something that people often misunderstand. No Result is in fact a form a punishment. Even if the dog does display a behavior, if there is absolutely no change to the stimuli, the dog will be less likely to display that form of behavior again as it garnered “No Result”. What we do need to understand here is that the dog will likely increase the frequency or intensity of the behavior before it goes the other way and starts to settle down. If for example you have a barking dog problem, it will likely get worse before it gets better.

A final word on punishment: Punishment’s inherent nature is not good or bad, and Mums and Dads out there should not be afraid of the concept of punishment, the critical thing to understand however is that even when done correctly, Punishment does not teach animals (or humans for that matter) what to do, instead it teaches what not to do. For learning and improvement in behavior, development of confidence and character, we need to spend much more time and effort on helping our dog understand what they should do when encountering any given situation.

In an ideal world, we as owners want to be giving our pups every opportunity to succeed. Before “throwing them in the deep end” of a new situation, take a moment to think: Will my dog be able to handle this situation? If you think there is a decent chance that they wont be able to get through it successfully, then do your best to avoid it until you have spent enough time working with them, slowly advancing the complexity of the situation in small bite sized chunks they can handle. This leads to exponential growth in confidence and solidifies their character.

The next video in the series will be diving down further into Reinforcement and Punishment and talking about the Shaping Behaviour Matrix/Motivation Matrix and will discuss specific examples of each of its four elements.


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