Negative Punishment (and Why It Is Great)

6 Mar

The word punishment in dog training usually conjures up images of dogs being “checked” with chains, a shock collar wrapped around their neck, or even a rolled up newspaper. To punish often means to “correct” a behavior- the general understanding of a correction means applying an aversive- be it a shock, choke, check, smack, or even verbal reprimand. Those of you who know me as a trainer are then probably confused by the title of this post- did Mary really just use “Negative, Punishment, and Great”- all in the same sentence? While I do often say I am a “Positive Reinforcement” trainer, that just means my training is Positive Reinforcement based. I do also often utilize Negative Punishment. In this context the word Negative does not imply that it is unpleasant, but rather that we are subtracting or taking something away as a consequence (when using Positive Punishment, it would imply we are adding something to punish- adding a harsh word or sound, a squirt of water, a shock, etc.) Teaching is about feedback, and we cannot train any animal without relaying both the message “yes, that was right” along with “sorry, not what I am looking for.” Negative Punishment is a completely humane, fair and effective way to let your dog know they are offering the wrong behavior and can be used in a training session or in real life situations. Like any punishment (or reinforcement for that matter) there are specifications for using Negative Punishment in training; such as timing, consistency, planning ahead, and understanding the consequence.

Like nearly every aspect of training- timing is important! A Negative Punishment must be timed so that the dog makes the connection between behavior and consequence. For example, you can withhold your dog’s dinner for a couple seconds if every time you go to set it down, they lunge for it. When they start to move towards it, you remove it again. When they are sitting patiently as you set down their food and you then finally allow them to chow down you are using Positive Reinforcement- the reward for sitting nicely being their own dinner! On the other hand, you cannot withhold your dog’s dinner because they did not come back in the house when you called earlier in the day (or even a minute earlier.) Your dog will not make the connection between not coming when called and not receiving their dinner that night (not to mention that you should never punish your dog for returning to you- regardless of how long it takes!) You must also be careful to avoid unintentionally using Negative Punishment-


You have your dog at the park, playing nicely with other dogs. You want to leave. You call your dog over, they respond happily.

You clip on the leash and walk away.

Oops! You just took your dog away from the fun they were having right after they responded graciously to your recall. Next time they may not come to you as quickly, fearing that they may be taken away from the awesome thing they are smelling, dog they are playing with, poop they are about to roll in, etc. In this situation I would call my dog out,  clip on the leash, and give a cue (that has already been taught) like “Let’s Go,” which for my dogs means “Keep it Movin’.” I generally use this on walks when they linger back to smell something on the ground or greet someone walking by. “Let’s Go” has been heavily rewarded in the past because I knew that I would be using it to move them away from things they want. I also practice rewarding their response to “Let’s Go” by occasionally giving them what they wanted to begin with, right after they do as requested.

Positive Punishment, which is usually our first reaction to something we don’t like- to physically or verbally stop it, can result in unintended associations with the environment, people, other dogs, or nearly anything that is in the vicinity of the dog when they receive the punishment instead of with the behavior itself. It can also result in a dog who does not participate in the undesired behavior when you are there (you being a predictor of punishment) but will happily do it when not in your presence. This usually results in the “My Dog Only Listens To Me and Nobody Else” complex when the truth is that your dog doesn’t listen to other people because those other people have never punished them for the behavior. You become “The Intimidator”- super hero (villian? depends who you ask…) with the uncanny ability to ruin all the fun. The unintended side effects of using applied punishment, when we cannot tell for sure what our dog is associating it with, is called “fall out.” Does fall out always happen when one uses Positive Punishment to correct a behavior? No, I don’t think it does. But I also have no desire to find out.

Negative Punishment is a simple relayed message- you do THAT then THIS goes away. It can be a treat, an opportunity, an action, etc. There is a “fall out” to Negative Punishment if you are not aware that it is going to occur. This is called an Extinction Burst. If a behavior has been rewarded in the past (which it is likely has if it is continuing), and you make sure it is no longer rewarded in any way- an extinction burst will likely occur. The behavior will become exaggerated (read: get worse) before it goes away completely. Imagine going to start your car and it does nothing. Every other time you have started your car it has turned on easily and you were able to get where you needed to go. The extinction burst is when you continue to try and start the car over and over, even getting frustrated or angry, until you finally realize the car is not going to start and you give up (the behavior of trying to start the car has extinguished.) Now, if you reward a behavior in the middle of an extinction burst when the behavior is being exaggerated, you’ve just reinforced that stronger version of the behavior you were originally trying to get rid of! Oops. Just because Negative Punishment is more “gentle” from our point of view than physical punishment, does not make it fool-proof. No punishment can be “one-size-fits-all”. Just as some dogs can withstand a shock or applied aversive (Positive Punishment) and others would completely shut down, the same is true of Negative Punishment. Some dogs are extremely sensitive and taking away what they want as a consequence of  behavior can be just as aversive as if you had hit them! Dogs who have zero impulse control can also be easily frustrated when you keep taking away what they want. Each training situation is individual to the dog involved.

A very common behavior issue that can be changed by using simple Positive Reinforcement paired with Negative Punishment is the act of walking on a loose leash. What is reinforcing the behavior? Moving forward. Moving forward, or getting somewhere, is an extremely powerful motivator. Many dogs will choke themselves and withstand painful devices and jerks on the leash just to keep moving forward. Those things are not “punishing” enough to overpower the desire to go,go,go! This can be used to your advantage. Instead of causing your dog pain in an attempt to get them to stop moving forward at what is a normal pace for an animal with 2 more legs than you and I- just stop moving. You pull, we don’t move- that is the simple message. This can be made easier with training tools that are available such as front clip harnesses and head halters. These tools give you better leverage to stop forward movement. Many dogs, when wearing these devices, will not pull as much even without any training involved! Just remember that these are, as stated, tools- and should not be relied upon indefinitely. The stopping of forward motion when your dog pulls will get the message across rather quickly. You should also be reinforcing what you do want to see for maximum effect. When your dog turns back to you and puts some slack in the leash, you can begin moving again- giving a treat right at your side as they start walking along with you. Repeat. You have just communicated  with your dog using no words at all. There is no anger or frustration involved because you are simply removing what they want- and perhaps you have already planned the session ahead of time. It also helps that nearly everyone has excellent timing with this exercise because it is a simple concept- pulling means you stop in your tracks, and slack means you can start moving again.

You can also practice reinforcing your dog for walking next to you without any leash at all.

Negative Punishment, though the term doesn’t sound so good, is a generally well accepted (by dogs and people alike) consequence to a behavior. It is easy to implement, highly effective and pairs well with Positive Reinforcement. It is quite impossible to train without at least the use of Negative Punishment, even for a “Positive Reinforcement trainer” such as myself. Negative Punishment is not a secret or something us “positive trainers” wish to hide- it’s use is just sometimes not as easily observed. There are usually no words, no attention paid to the behavior (as that can be reinforcing to some dogs), and then lots of reinforcement for the behavior we wanted to see all along. This can often be seen as passive or permissive- which is simply not true- it is, in fact, very clear communication. It is a stark contrast to the person that smacks their dog or gives a quick jerk on the dog’s collar to correct them- these things are easily seen and, unfortunately, widely accepted. You can implement Negative Punishment in real life situations such as door-dashing, jumping up on visitors, and more- just by manipulating the environment or dog’s original motivator to influence your dog’s behavior. I find Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment effective together in an endless number of situations- including Clicker Training in general, where the absence of the click communicates that the offered behavior is going un-reinforced. I think Negative Punishment is a great way to communicate your dissapproval with minimal damage done to both your dog and to your relationship with your dog, while also giving them a reason to listen to what you teach them (you control all things valuable to them) and instilling impulse control- the ability to control themselves in any environment.