All About Aversives and Punishment

Not all aversives are punishment, but all punishments are aversive. As mentioned yesterday, punishment, by its very definition, reduces the frequency of behavior. If you...


Not all aversives are punishment, but all punishments are aversive.

As mentioned yesterday, punishment, by its very definition, reduces the frequency of behavior. If you are yelling at your dog when she barks and the barking doesn’t stop, yelling is not a punishment. For some dogs, walking in the rain is an aversive but not a punishment.

Friend and colleague Steve White, who specializes in clicker training canines for law enforcement and military organizations, lists 8 rules for using punishment:

Eight Rules for Using Punishment:

1. The punishment must be something the animal dislikes and something the animal does not expect.

2. The punishment must suppress behavior. (This is, in fact, the very definition of something that is a punisher.) If something is being used for punishment, but it does not suppress behavior, its ineffective and often just plain abuse.

3. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much and there will be negative fallout. Youll end up hurting your relationship with the animal and loosing more than just that behavior. Too little and the punishment will only serve to desensitize the animal and build resistance.

4. The punishment must happen immediately after the behavior it is to be associated with. Otherwise, a clear enough association between the wrong behavior and the punishment will not be made.

5. The punishment must be associated with the behavior, but not with the trainer. Otherwise, the trainer becomes part of the punishment and the animal starts fearing and disliking the trainer.

6. The punishment must happen every time the behavior occurs. If punishment does not happen every time the behavior occurs, the behavior gets put on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Depending on the behavior and how often the punishment actually occurs, the animal could decide that performing the behavior was worth the risk of getting punished.

7. There must be an alternative for the animal.

8. Punishment must never be used to the extent that punishment outweighs positive reinforcement (from the animals perspective, not yours!)

Using aversives in training, whether it be punishment or negative reinforcement, does have potential side effects. Respected behavior authority Pat Miller lists twelve potential side effects of the use of aversives:

1. You can cause physical pain/damage to your dog.
2. It is difficult to guage the appropriate intensity.
3. The dog can develop a punishment callous.
4. The behavior may return when punishment stops.
5. It is difficult to have perfect timing.
6. It is difficult to be perfectly consistent.
7. It can suppress desired behaviors; inhibit offered behaviors.
8. It does not teach the dog WHAT to do.
9. The suppressive effect of the punisher is limited to the presence of the discriminative stimuli.
10. It is rewarding to the punisher.
11. It can damage the dog`s confidence, trust in the trainer, relationship between dog and human.
12. Violence begets violence.

Jean Donaldson says the following about the decision to use punishment, which reflects much better than I ever could my own perception of the choice, in her book Dogs are From Neptune:


Everyone, in order to maintain psychological well being, needs to behave congruently with their values….There is a pretty broad spectrum of viewpoints, as you probably know. No one call tell you which camp you are in.

…Because aversives carry side effects, are potentially ruinous, and are always upsetting and invasive, execution must be flawless.

…So, you must decide where you stand on the particular issue of aversives in training. You must decide whether this particular problems meets the criteria for use of aversives in your value system.

To learn more about punishment, check out the following resources:

On Punishment by Bob Bailey

An Interview with Marian Bailey, PhD, and Bob Bailey from Sophia Yin

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Position Statement on Punishment

I’ll Teach You a Thing or Two! The Unwanted Teachings of Punishment by Kellie Snider

Let Me Teach You a thing or Two! The Unwanted Teachings of Negative Reinforcement by Kellie Snider

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