Behavior Modification Part 2: On Panthers and Punishment

Earlier this week we discussed why behavior modification isn’t a quick fix. Let’s explore more about this topic.

I saw the guy on tv fix this problem in 5 minutes. Why can’t I do that?

Be wary of anyone who claims they can solve your dog’s problem quickly. The physiology of the brain doesn’t work that way. People who claim to fix behavior problems “instantly” like this rely on harsh punishment (either something the dog finds painful, something he finds scary, or both).

Punishment often seems to work in the beginning. This is because the dog learns that the pathway he usually travels down is no longer safe. Imagine walking down that path in the rainforest and suddenly encountering a huge panther. You would probably avoid that path for awhile afterwards. However, you’re probably not going to feel very good about the whole situation. You still need to get to the other side of the rainforest, and now you’re lost and don’t know where to go. You don’t know how to avoid the panther, and you don’t know how to get where you need to go. This is what punishment does to your dog.

The problem with punishment is that it creates fear and anxiety, and it doesn’t teach the dog what to do instead of the problem behavior.

If you’re avoiding your preferred path, you may stumble onto a better path instead. However, you’re just as likely to stumble upon an even worse path. This frequently happens – the dog learns not to growl when he’s uncomfortable around children because growling results in a collar correction, but he still feels uncomfortable when kids are around. Now that he no longer growls, if he gets uncomfortable enough he’s going to go straight to biting without growling first. This is how dogs who bite “without warning” are created. Never punish a dog for communication.

This doesn’t just happen with aggression. Your dog may no longer bark when he’s left unattended in the yard, but he may turn his attention to digging up your flowerbed or chewing through your fence.

The other problem with punishment is that it may create a “quick fix,” but the results are not permanent. Just because you encountered a panther on the path once doesn’t mean you’ll never go down that path again. You probably won’t for awhile, but over time you’ll try that familiar path again.

The same thing happens with dogs who are punished for a behavior problem. At first they seem to be “cured,” but after a few weeks or months the problem comes back, oftentimes worse than ever. Bottom line: punishment is ineffective in solving behavior problems, and can be dangerous because it creates a ticking time bomb.

Can we fix behavior problems? Absolutely!

However, how long it takes will depend largely on how good we are at preventing the dog from going down that old pathway, how well established that path was, and how attractive we’re making the new path (hint: use the dog’s favorite rewards and be incredibly generous).

Behavior modification isn’t always a quick fix, but change is possible. Support your dog, and be patient as you forge that path together through the jungle.

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2 responses to “Behavior Modification Part 2: On Panthers and Punishment

  1. Interesting post. I correct Jack when he barks because he wants attention by either growling at him or grasping his ruff. But I am not reinforcing when he is quiet. Bad path for Jack. Jack randomly barks. There is no rhyme or reason to it other than in his head. What is a good way to change this behavior?

  2. I fid turning my back on my fairly newly adopted one year old sheppard who was a major barker two moths ago–it is working really well!!!

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