Negative Punishment- Much Better Than It Sounds!

Out of the four types of behavior change procedures in the quadrant, negative punishment sounds like it must be the worst of the worst, right? Well… not so much.  In fact, as a humane, positive reinforcement-based clicker trainer, this is probably the next type of approach I’m likely to use if I can’t figure out how to use positive reinforcement.  Why is that? Let’s look at what it actually means. Negative Punishment means removing something from the dog’s environment in order to decrease the future frequency of that behavior.

That means that all of the typical “punishment” procedures you might think of- hitting, yelling, prong collars, choke collars, or shocks- fall outside of this realm.  They all add something and so are positive punishment techniques.  What types of things are negative punishment?  The most obvious is the “time out,” a procedure that many people happily employ with their children as a humane method to decrease inappropriate behaviors.

Here is an example:

Suppose you’re playing tug with your six-month-old Labrador retriever mix.  It starts out well; the dog is tugging nicely and because you’ve trained a great “drop it,” she is releasing the toy and then tugging with you again.  But as you play, the dog is getting more and more excited.  Her eyes are shiny, her ears are up, and she even has some piloerection (hair on the back of her neck is standing up).  Suddenly, she misses the tug and nips your hand.  BIG no-no!  So, you drop the toy and walk out of the room.  You just put your dog in time out- you removed the game of tug to reduce the behavior of biting. If the biting decreases in the future, this is classic negative punishment.

Time out can also be achieved for an over-stimulated dog by doing any of the following: crating them for a little while (if they like their crate); closing the door between you and your dog until they calm down; or removing a toy until they have settled down enough to play appropriately.

As you can see, this type of training does not teach your dog what to do- it teaches them what not to do.  It is not an effective method for teaching your dog the tugging and play behaviors you do want- that still has to be achieved through positive reinforcement.  Remember, punishment should always be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement to teach your dog what you do want. But humane forms of punishment do help them learn which behaviors to avoid, because those behaviors make the game stop.

I used negative punishment with my dog when she was extremely “sniffy” on the agility course.  She loved playing agility by the time I used this.  When I would take her to class she would get very excited about the equipment, start a run, and then get extremely distracted by the smell (perhaps of rabbit) that was in the grass.  She would sniff and sniff and sniff and wouldn’t respond to anything I said or did.  Rather than using positive punishment (i.e. correction) to stop her sniffing, which might also have made her a less enthusiastic agility dog, I used negative punishment.  As soon as her nose dropped to the ground she got one call to come back; if she didn’t respond, I would walk over, calmly pick her up, and remove her to her crate.  She apparently was not a fan of missing her agility run, because after just a few times, the sniffing behavior stopped! So, did I “punish” my dog? Absolutely- the behavior decreased, and that’s what punishment means.  Did I hurt her? No, no, no! And, because I was careful, I have not (as far as I can tell) suffered any unwanted side effects from that punishment.