Punishment vs. Interruption: Properly Managing Your Dog’s Behavior

“No! Get off the table!” “No! Give that here!” “No! Quit pestering her or I’ll spray you!”

All my life I’ve been round individuals who inform their canine, “No!” – and I’ve performed it a lot myself. I assumed it was punishment. But was it? Punishment is a puzzlement:

■ The phrase has different and contradictory definitions. 

■ People who suppose they’re punishing their canine usually aren’t doing so. They are merely interrupting the present conduct.

■  We people have a powerful urge to reply in a punitive approach to perceived wrongs. It seemingly comes from having a fast-moving, intuitive mind course of. We are wired for retribution!

All this will mix to get us confused and caught in unproductive conduct patterns with our canine. But earlier than we will do something about this, we have to perceive and agree on some definitions.


The time period “punishment” is outlined otherwise in widespread utilization and in conduct science. This causes many issues of communication and understanding. 

Two dictionary definitions of the normal (widespread) which means of punishment are: 

• The infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.  

• Suffering, ache, or loss that serves as retribution. 

These point out that punishment is an motion taken towards somebody who has dedicated some sort of offense. In this sense of punishment, there isn’t a point out of rehabilitation, and extra importantly, no reference to future conduct. Punishment is just the deliberately disagreeable motion the punisher takes towards the offender. 

Now distinction this with the definition in conduct science. Miltenberger (2008) lists three components to the definition of punishment:

1. A selected conduct happens.

2. A consequence instantly follows the conduct.

3. As a outcome, the conduct is much less more likely to happen once more sooner or later. (The conduct is weakened.)

Parts 1 and a pair of are associated to the widespread definition of punishment, or it looks as if they’re. But Part Three is completely different and notably exhausting to bear in mind due to the normal which means.

In conduct science, punishment has solely occurred if the focused conduct decreases sooner or later. That signifies that on the immediate of taking motion (Part 2 above), we will’t know whether or not a conduct has been punished or not. We will solely know by observing the animal’s conduct over time.

Making issues much more complicated, there are two kinds of punishment outlined in conduct science. 

Negative punishment: Something fascinating is eliminated after a conduct, which ends up in the conduct taking place much less usually.

Positive punishment: Something aversive is added after a conduct, which ends up in the conduct taking place much less usually. 

Both punishment processes are aversive, they usually each carry dangers of unwanted side effects. But using unfavorable punishment is appropriate to some constructive reinforcement-based trainers. An instance is closing your hand round a deal with if the canine tries to seize it if you find yourself attempting to show him to “leave it.” 

“Positive punishment” is the method extra individuals really feel conversant in. An instance is jerking on the leash when a canine pulls forward, with the intent of lowering pulling sooner or later. This sort of punishment, which entails using an aversive stimulus, carries an important danger of fallout. Positive reinforcement-based trainers search to not use it.

This is the kind of punishment I’ll be discussing in remainder of this text.


It’s widespread to listen to beleaguered canine homeowners say issues like, “I tell my dog ‘NO’ and shake him by the scruff but he keeps jumping on my guests!” 

An individual who says issues like that is attempting to punish her canine. She is probably going not merciless and he or she seemingly loves her canine. But she is following the mores of our tradition somewhat than the science of conduct. She is taking quick retributive motion when the canine does one thing “bad.” 

But what she isn’t doing is decreasing the canine’s leaping sooner or later – the canine would possibly even reply to the scruff shake as an invite to play! Her actions don’t qualify as “punishment” within the behavioral sense if the canine retains on leaping. 

What such motion usually achieves is interruption. If you yell at your canine when he barks on the mail service, you might interrupt his barking. This is reinforcing . . . to you! “Whew! He stopped barking!” But the subsequent day, he’s at it once more! So though what you need is in your canine by no means to bark on the mail service, what you get is a cycle of bark/yell/aid. 

It’s troublesome to appreciate that such actions should not efficient in the long run. Stopping the annoyance reinforces us within the quick time period. And it’s straightforward to confuse the interruption with coaching since we’re altering the canine’s conduct within the second. 


Let’s discuss that urge to take motion towards one other being. 

Psychologists who assist the twin course of principle (Evans, 2009) state that there are two typical human cognitive processes. 

“According to dual-process theories, there are two distinct systems underlying human reasoning: an evolutionarily old system that is associative, automatic, unconscious, parallel, and fast; and a more recent, distinctively human system that is rule-based, controlled, conscious, serial, and slow.” 

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman popularized twin course of principle in his e book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). He refers back to the “fast” system as System 1 and the slower, extra considerate system as System 2. 

There is lots of analysis displaying that System 1 – the knee-jerk system – governs retributive punishment. 

John M. Darley, an American social psychologist and professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, writes: 

“When a person registers a transgression against self or others, the person experiences an intuitively produced, emotionally tinged reaction of moral outrage. The reaction is driven by the just deserts-based retributive reactions of the person to the transgression rather than, for instance, considerations of the deterrent force of the punishment…. I suggest that these desires to punish are often the product of intuitive rather than reasoned processes.” 

Is this sounding acquainted?

If an analogous inner course of happens in people when a canine “misbehaves,” it might clarify why retributive punishment can really feel so vital in that scenario. (And not simply to the proprietor; ask anybody whose canine has “misbehaved” in public how many individuals pressured her to do one thing about it!) Our outraged ethical sense misfires on a creature who doesn’t have the identical cognition or morals as we do. 

But whether or not or not our urge to punish canine is linked to the phenomenon Darley and plenty of different scientists have studied, we all know that stopping a conduct that’s bothering us is reinforcing (to us). Even if there isn’t a future lower of the annoying conduct, we’ve discovered how you can relieve ourselves within the quick time period. We find yourself doing it many times.

It might be devilishly exhausting to vary the sample of repeatedly yelling, jerking, or hitting canine, even when we don’t need to harm or scare them – and I consider most of us don’t. If the phenomenon Darley describes is concerned, we’re seemingly wrestling with an outdated and powerful a part of the mind after we attempt to break the behavior.


We suppose we perceive “positive punishment” as a result of the motion of doing one thing disagreeable to cease a conduct comes naturally to us people. But it seems that it’s not that straightforward to make use of an aversive stimulus to cut back future conduct, even when that’s the specific intent. 

To start with, you might want to go massive. You should do one thing that actually hurts or scares the canine, not simply one thing disagreeable. (Dogs, like people, will tolerate an aversive stimulus if there’s sturdy competing reinforcement for the conduct.) Here’s the catch: If you obtain sufficient depth to lower conduct, you danger putting in long-term concern in your canine.

There are a number of different standards to fulfill earlier than the canine’s “bad” conduct will lower by this course of. Consistency and timing of the aversive stimulus are essential. Also, the stimulus have to be disassociated from the human if the aim is to suppress the conduct typically. In different phrases, the canine must study that one thing unhealthy occurs when he tries to get within the trash even when the human isn’t there. Those who haven’t studied conduct science don’t have the data to plan this out. And it takes a System 2 response, somewhat than the knee-jerk, System 1 response, to make that plan. I’m not condoning punishment, deliberate or unplanned; I’m simply saying that usually when individuals suppose they’re punishing conduct, they aren’t.

So we might repeatedly “punish” a canine within the cultural sense of the phrase with out reaching punishment within the conduct science sense. Even although we would get non permanent aid from doing it, the cycle shouldn’t be enjoyable for the human. Who desires to yell at their canine or spray them with water or threaten them on a regular basis? And for the canine, this cycle might be wherever from annoying to terrifying. 

So what Does Work?

Effective constructive punishment is far harsher than we might ever need to be with our canine. Unpleasant interruption does little about future conduct. So what are we left with?

There is a simple, humane approach to interrupt conduct in actual life whereas additionally making a long-term plan for conduct change. A well-trained and practiced “positive interrupter” can cease harmful or undesirable conduct in its tracks. It’s an consideration/reorientation cue skilled with constructive reinforcement. And if the interrupter is mixed with a plan to take away alternatives for the undesired conduct, the undesirable conduct will lower.

Note that “positive interrupter” shouldn’t be a time period from conduct science; it’s only a cue that’s skilled with constructive reinforcement. But some individuals practice a particular cue for this somewhat than calling the canine away with their recall or “leave it” cue.

I skilled a particular constructive interrupter with two of my canine whose play was intense. Even although they by no means harm one another throughout play, they’d ramp up, and I felt like the potential of aggression was all the time there. 

I used the phrase “Cool it!” given in a pleasing, sing-song voice. I labored with every canine individually at first. I skilled it similar to I might practice any cue to reorient to me: I paired the phrase with treats. I began in a super-easy atmosphere, educating them that the phrases predicted one thing yummy. Then I began utilizing it in straightforward real-life conditions, for example, in the event that they had been in the identical room with me however being attentive to one thing else, or in the event that they had been one room away however wanting my manner. They would wish to reorient or come to me to get the goodie. 

When I began utilizing it in play, I used it during times the place they had been having a breather, then labored as much as interrupting full-intensity play. It labored superbly and had the general impact that they discovered they might interrupt themselves when issues bought intense. 

I used to be studying, too. It might be counterintuitive to say one thing nice to your canine and provides them a deal with if you find yourself apprehensive and need to yell, “Stop it!” The course of helped me escape that System 1, knee-jerk response, and do one thing that was win-win as a substitute. 

It’s finest to make use of an interrupter in an atmosphere the place the canine has loads of methods to entry reinforcers, resembling getting on a mat, sitting properly, or taking part in coaching video games. In an atmosphere the place there are simpler methods to earn reinforcers, the undesired conduct will seemingly fade over time as a substitute of accelerating. Also, in a richly reinforcing atmosphere, there’s much less probability of the canine studying the sample of “Be naughty so I can get called away and get reinforced.” 

Positive interruption is a greater methodology than each precise punishment, with its unpleasantness, fallout, and limitless cycle. And calling such a cue an interrupter will help people who find themselves new to conduct science have a particular identify for an motion that they need very a lot – a approach to get their canine to cease doing that! 

This article was first revealed in Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts.

Dog coach Eileen Anderson writes about conduct science, her life with canine, and coaching with constructive reinforcement on her weblog (eileenanddogs.com). She can also be the writer of Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. See web page 24 for data.


Darley, J. M. (2009). “Morality in the law: The psychological foundations of citizens’ desires to punish transgressions.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 5, 1-23. 

Evans, J. S. B., & Frankish, Ok. E. (2009). In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond. Oxford University Press.

Kahneman, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


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