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What is punishment??


In training, the technical definition of a punisher is:  Something that decreases the frequency of the behavior it immediately follows.

Is that a bad thing?  Are there times when it is good to decrease a behavior?  How about the behavior, ‘biting children’?  Is it okay to decrease that?  How about the behavior of running into traffic?  Is that okay to decrease?  Is it okay to decrease incessant barking?  How about jumping on people?


It goes on and on.


So, if it is not bad to decrease a behavior, WHY do so many trainers express outrage at the idea of using punishment to teach animals?


One huge reason is because many people cannot keep the technical definition of a punisher straight.  They confuse the technical term with the everyday idea of punishment.  For many, the word punishment conjures ideas of pain, restriction, embarrassment, rejection, humiliation, debasement… and other unpleasant or harsh concepts.


The inability of many to keep terminology straight is seen when some trainers talk about being positive with their animals.  Technically, in training, positive refers to “adding something to the environment.”  It has nothing to do with have a good, or ‘positive’ attitude.


Truth is, the choice of the word “punish” is a bad, unwise one.  It is a word that is simply too laden with emotions to do double duty as a technical term.  And, it is not a logical choice.  A better choice is the word “diminish”.  This is logical and accurate, and it doesn’t have the emotional baggage of ‘punish’.


So, let’s agree to switch right now.  Many of us feel an instant calming when we talk about diminish versus punish.  A diminisher decreases the frequency of the behavior it immediately follows.  To diminish a behavior is to decrease the frequency.


However, even if we use the word diminish, some trainers still get emotional, judgmental and accusatory.


Some trainers will say that rather than decrease any behavior, we should increase an opposing behavior, so the animal just does not get a chance to do the ‘wrong’ thing.  


The need to “NO”


No matter how gently it is done, they believe that it is better to have only correct answers, yesses, rewards and encouragement.  The very existence of the word ‘no’ offends them.


Why not?  Why not just encourage animals to do the opposite of what we don’t want?  Do we need the word no?


The answer is “Yes!”  We definitely do need “No!”  It saves time and confusion.  It confirms the opposite of ‘yes’.  This is important.


For example, you ask me, “Would you like a glass of water?”


“Water is healthy!  Sometimes I like water. Do you have other things to drink?”


“Yes, would you like coffee?”


“Have you seen the medical reports about caffeine?  Wow look over there!  Could you hand me that spoon?”


“Do you want coffee?”


“Could you hand me another spoon?”


“Sure.  Here.  Did you want water?”


Oh, I need another spoon!”


“Sheesh!  Why don’t you just go home.”  (I tried to increase ‘hand me the spoon’ rather than decrease ‘do you want coffee’)


What is wrong with the following:  


“Would you like a glass of water?”


“No thank you.”


How about this:


“Do you want me to keep pouring beer down your throat, even though you are gagging?”


Does ‘no’ exist in nature?


No exists in over 520  human languages.  It exists in every animal culture I can think of.  Horses pin their ears, dogs growl, cats hiss, parrots lunge… even a human finds the meaning behind the gesture crystal clear.  


Does an animal living wild encounter the concept of ‘no’, and is it important for the animal to understand this concept?


Absolutely!  And if he does not figure out the meaning of no, he is likely to offend a stronger animal and be injured or killed.  Mothers are often seen telling their youngsters “no”.


The word “no” saves time and problems, as in, “Do you want more beatings?”  “No.”


So why does it offend many trainers to tell an animal “no”.  Perhaps because, just as punishment is linked with pain and distress, “no” may be linked, in the minds of many, with failure, rejection, and loss.


But while “no” can be paired with those feelings, it can also be simply a neutral signal.  It can tell an animal “that is not the way to success” or, “you cannot continue in that direction”, or “that is not the choice I meant”, or “don’t bite that girl”.  It may simply be the fastest, most direct way of telling an animal what not to do, in order to be successful.


Similarly,  a punisher may not be linked to pain, displeasure, restriction, unpleasantness, or any other thing we think is mean or demeaning.   In fact, a punisher may be pleasant or even fun.  If I tell a child that every time she stops twirling her hair, I will give a signal.  At first, I might reinforce these signals to encourage the girl to manage her twirling.  Next I tell her that the longer between signals (because she has longer gaps between attempts to hair-twirl), the bigger recognition of her success.  She successfully stops twirling her hair.  We have a celebration. Her twirling has been diminished, or punished.  She was successful.  We had fun.  Not so bad!


The critical trait of a punisher is that it decreases the frequency of the behavior it immediately follows.


There is nothing that says that there is any pain or unpleasantness involved.


For example, I want to teach you not to push on my hand when I extend it.  If my hand gets limp the instant you make contact, you may decrease pushing.  I have diminished your push by going limp.  The behavior of “push” was diminished as a result of my hand going limp.  Are you feeling devastated?  Demeaned?  Disappointed???


I thought not.


But, it doesn’t matter.  In our culture, the mere word “punish” makes many people angry and upset.  If you want to get the adrenaline (actually , dopamine) flowing on a discussion list serve, just mention “punish.”


The gifts of punishment…


The first gift of punishment is that a behavior is diminished.


The second gift is a strengthening.  A strengthening of will, ability, wisdom, and most of all, a strengthening of the ability to cope.


This is a profound gift.  I know from personal experience.  My parents believed that if you spared the rod, you spoiled the child.  I experienced corporal punishment.  Sometimes I felt it was too extreme and unfair.  But, it also taught me about consequences.  It toughened me up.  I led me to cope.  I learned how to navigate the rules and consequences and to avoid physical punishment.  Sometimes I chose it.  For example, if a really primo opportunity to irritate my sister arose, I knew that if I took that opportunity, I would be punished.  However, I also knew that it would be worth it.  The punishment did not outweigh the pleasure I derived.  I was content.  On the other hand,  I knew a family with five children who were sheltered and coddled.  Within a few years of leaving home, two had life threatening illnesses.  One moved home.  One stopped communicating with home.  These protected children were not good at coping with stress, frustration, disappointment, rejection, and the other things that happen in real life when parents don’t buffer us from the real world.


It is irresponsible of us not to lead our animals into robust coping skills while we are still overseeing and sheltering them during the training process.  Challenges will come.  It is our job to prepare them to be successful when we are no longer there to over see there behavior.  When we do, we set the animals up for long, happy lives.  They know how to operate in the human environment.  They know how to be successful amidst humans.  When at the National Zoo, I worked directly with two sea lions.  When I left the zoo, they were 8-9 years old.  The life span of a California sea lion was believed to be 16 to 20 years.  Mine lived to be 27 and 30 years old.


Why are people so emotional and illogical about the mere mention of the word, punish?


Perhaps because, like many dogs and other animals, people can also be addicted to adrenaline/dopamine. They find triggers that help them to access dopamine, because of this addiction.   People are often constantly scanning the environment for a ‘legal’ excuse to go bonkers and experience higher levels of dopamine.    If someone decides that all punishment is evil, then they can feel justified to target anyone who shows any willingness to punish.  They may then feel justified in attacking these people,  with all the meaness,  venom and passion they can muster.  They treat other humans in the exact way they claim they would never treat an animal. This is illogical and inconsistent.  If you believe it’s wrong to inflict pain and humiliation on animals, surely it is wrong to inflict it on people.  Such logic is often of no interest to people who love to condemn others.  They have found a way to get repeatedly aroused and dopaminized, in a way they believe is socially acceptable.  Their indignation and condemnation is often illogical, inconsistent and based on a very superficial understanding of training.  For example, they cannot keep the definition of ‘punish’  straight.


These days, with the use of Intermediate Bridges, Name & Explain, comprehensive training plans, and If-Then statements, I seldom have an occasion to punish.  What I do instead is another story.  That’s one reason it has taken me this long to write about this subject.  Twenty years ago, I felt that everyone needs to learn about how to punish effectively and humanely – and professional trainers are finding it harder and harder to get this information – since the subject has become fraught with drama.  Up-and-coming trainers need to learn BOTH how to punish effectively and humanely, AND how to avoid punishment.  And oh, by the way, we should use the word diminish, not punish.  For more on that, see my podcast HERE!