This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Increases!”
You knew I would get around to talking about punishment, right?
Q: If you yell at your dog when she barks, is that positive punishment?
A: Only if the barking decreases. (And how often does THAT happen?)
So the answer is, “Not usually.” Or honestly, “Almost never.”
Positive punishment is the presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that decreases the strength of the behavior.
Positive punishment is not merely doing something a dog doesn’t like after they do something you don’t like. Again, we must look at the consequences, just like with reinforcement.
What usually happens in the barking scenario, if we are honest about it, is that the barking is interrupted. This has nothing to do with whether punishment is happening or not, however. Punishment depends on future behavior. We’re looking for that decrease. So if your dog barks Every. Single. Time. the doorbell rings even though you yell at her every time and she often stops for a while after you yell–no punishment is going on there since she is just as barky the next time. (And you know she’s likely practicing it when you’re not there too, right?)
I’m serious about the most common outcome in the barking situation being that there was no punishment. How often have you heard someone say, “I yelled at my dog after he barked, and he barks a whole lot less now! Now I only have to yell every once in a while to keep him from barking at all!”
I’ve read that yelling is even less effective with birds. Apparently some screaming parrots think human yelling is quite a lot of fun!
What Is It, Then?
In all seriousness though, am I saying that therefore yelling is great and harmless and OK? Of course not. If a behavior is not changing, that’s still no excuse to hurt, intimidate, or scare your dogs. Lots of people would say it’s even worse. Many of the ineffective uses of aversives we see come down to plain abuse, not punishment or negative reinforcement. I personally yell very very rarely, but if I did (and it might not even be at my dogs), two of my dogs would cringe away from me. I absolutely do not want my dogs to be scared of me.
If I were a loud person in general, I would classically condition my dogs to associate yelling with food or toys raining down from the sky, like I conditioned Clara to have a positive response to other dogs barking. I should probably do it anyway, just for that odd moment now and then. Some people include “angry” tones of voice when conditioning their dogs to respond to their names, and I think this is brilliant. (Just don’t start out that way! Do a few thousand repetitions with a nice voice first. Check out the “Classical Conditioning” section of this post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) So even if the human is tired and cranky when they call their dog or speak to him, the dog still associates their name with great stuff.
Full disclosure: I was inspired to write these two posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.
Go back and check out the other post in this pair: “Only if the Behavior Increases!”
- Is it Punishment if you Withhold the Treat?
- Shut Down Dogs Part 2
- Threshold: It May Not Be What You Think
- Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement
- OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?