Understanding the Effects of Corrections and Punishment and How it Hinders Your Dog Training Efforts in the Long Run
Corrections and punishment have been used for many years to train dogs. Yet, many positive rewards based trainers refrain from using them, why? Because other than the fact that more humane means of training are available, there are some good reasons for this. Physical punishment and corrections generally:
- Slows Down Training in the Long Run
- Diminishes the Effect a Cue has as a Secondary Reinforcer
Let’s look at both these points individually in the paragraphs below.
Why Corrections Slows Down Training
Through corrections, dogs will learn to comply. Why? Because they eventually learn that they have no choice. And that is often the objective of compulsion based trainers. While there is nothing wrong with that, unfortunately through corrections, dogs learn avoidance and fear too; fear to try new behaviours because every wrong move in compulsion based training is corrected. And thus, the best way to avoid corrections is to watch their steps carefully and look to the handler for directions. In short, dogs trained this way are not trained to think on their own. Instead they are conditioned to believe that it is dangerous to try new things. Hence such dogs may freeze, when confused or faced with unfamiliar situations. It’s not difficult to understand this because as humans, if we are subjected to such treatment by our parents or bosses, punishing us for every wrong move, how would we react?
Unlike compulsion based training, the natural outcome of rewards based training is a thinking dog, one that thrives on exploring and trying new behaviours hoping that one would stick and trigger a reward. Such dogs know that they have control over the rewards through offering the right behaviors at the right time. Hence unlike their compulsion trained counterparts, they are rewarded for trying and figuring out new things; they are rewarded to think.
In addition, positive rewards based training relies heavily on capturing behaviours the dog offers willingly. Hence, if no behaviours are offered, no behaviours can be captured and thus training slows down. And because dogs trained using compulsion are often unwilling to try and offer behaviours freely, positive rewards based trainers have to spend additional time getting them out of their shell before training can progress normally. Thus, while punishment may solve a problem in the short run, it almost always makes training more difficult from a long term perspective.
Why Corrections Undermines the Effect of the Cue
Look at any dog trained either with a clicker or verbal marker; when it hears the marker, be it a click or marker word like “yes,” it normally jumps about excitedly because it knows a treat is coming. The treat in this case is the primary reinforcer motivating the dog to perform the behaviour. And because the marker always comes before the treat, it draws strength from the treat and will itself become a secondary reinforcer. Extending this further, the verbal cue too (or what many dog trainers call command), when acted upon correctly by the dog, will result in a treat. Hence the verbal cue (like the marker) will, with time, become reinforcing enough to be termed a secondary reinforcer.
For dog trainers who employ backchaining to teach more complex behaviours and tricks, having verbal cues as secondary reinforcers are very useful. For example, the dog is usually not cued to perform the next behaviour till the preceding behaviour is done correctly. Thus on hearing the next cue, the dog is automatically reinforced knowing that it is one step closer to the reward; it’s akin to a marathon runner running out of steam fast but not giving up because the finishing line is just 100m away.
The problem comes when aversive is added to the equation. Even if rewards are still given if the behaviour is done right, the introduction of corrections for wrong behaviours diminishes the value of the cue. The cue is no longer solely an opportunity to earn rewards because a wrong move means a correction instead. This creates a perception of uncertainty in the mind of the dog and thus instead of having an eager and attentive dog waiting to perform the next cue, reluctance often creeps in. In worst case situations, signs of stress may even be noticeable, especially if overly harsh corrections are involved.
Thus instead of having a powerful secondary reinforcer, by introducing punishment, you sabotage your cues.