Positive Punishment - Not Really So "Positive"

Positive punishment is a term that is often misunderstood (much like negative reinforcement).  Once again, it is important to recognize that in behavior terminology, “positive” and “negative” are not value judgments- they are more similar to math terminology.  So with positive punishment, the “positive” really just means you are adding something to the environment.  The “punishment” part of the phrase means you are planning a technique that will decrease the future occurrence of the behavior. The formal definition of positive punishment is when you add something to the environment to decrease the future frequency of the behavior.

This differs from both types of reinforcement, because with reinforcement, you are always planning to increase a certain behavior.

Let’s look at an example. This is a hypothetical situation and it is not how I would recommend responding. In this example, the dog’s owner walks into the bedroom to discover Puppy chewing up a pair of very expensive shoes.  The owner yells and smacks the puppy’s nose. The puppy scampers away, hides, and never chews on shoes again.  Why is this positive punishment? Because the owner added something (the yell and the smack) to the environment and the puppy’s chewing behavior decreased in the future.

There are several ways to look at this situation.  You might think- “Oh my goodness, I would NEVER hit my puppy!” Or, you might think- “Hey, it was only one smack and the puppy never chewed shoes again, so isn’t that worth it?” To answer that question, let’s look at some possible consequences of this scenario.

  1. The puppy never chews shoes again (this is the good consequence).
  2. Every time the owner walks into a room for the next week and the puppy is there, the puppy urinates on the floor out of fear.  This is because the puppy has learned owner + entering room = smack.
  3. Every time the owner goes to pet the puppy’s head, the dog ducks his head, turns away, and/or just scampers away, having developed a fear of approaching hands.
  4. The puppy will not walk out the front door past the shoes that are next to the door because he has learned that shoes = pain.
  5. The puppy now growls, barks, and lunges whenever he is chewing on something and his owner comes near him, anticipating another smack.  In doggy language, he quite clearly tells his owner to STAY AWAY.  The owner becomes afraid of the dog.
  6. Use your imagination- once you start really thinking about all the things the owner might have actually taught the dog with that smack, the possibilities are endless.


This is one of the major issues with punishment-based training.  Does it work? Absolutely – though, as noted above, often not in the intended way.  Is it humane? I would argue it is not humane, but that could be a personal opinion that differs from yours.  I also have no interest in treating my dog in any way I would not treat anyone else I love. But, one place where there is no argument is in the consequences.  Before punishing your dog for something, ask yourself- Is it worth the possible side effects?? 

The known side effects of punishment include aggression and avoidance.  These side effects are not only very common, but also incredibly difficult to avoid, even if you have knowledge and experience with positive punishment techniques. Do you want to risk creating a dog that is either fearful or aggressive?  If not, it is much, much safer to use positive reinforcement and avoid the chance of creating a dog with serious behavior issues through the unintended side effects of punishment.