I heard two great quotes this week. The first was from behavior researcher Julie Vargas: “People punish others when they’ve lost control.” The second was from a young mother in the mall waiting to get her super expensive laptop repaired after her toddler smashed the keyboard: “You can’t punish them if they don’t know what they’ve done is wrong.” After addressing some very serious behavior issues with dogs over the weekend, these words really stuck with me.
As humans we desire to have some amount of control over our lives and our environment. When something is disruptive to that, we can feel like things are unraveling around us and we want someone or something to blame. We want to make it right again. Having a dog, an animal, who is seemingly out of control is incredibly stressful for the owner. Our first instinct is to punish the behavior.
To some degree, punishment is necessary. When you study animal science you see that behaviors that are punished go down in frequency or stop altogether, while behaviors that are rewarded increase. The tricky thing is that what we perceive as punishment may not translate in doggy language. Yanking your dog by the collar doesn’t teach him how to walk on leash, it teaches him to worry about being choked. Yelling at the dog for eating your couch cushions doesn’t change anything, except that your dog may get anxious when you come through the door next time, or get sneakier about the destructive, boredom-busting behaviors.
Punishment works when we take away the things that a dog sees as rewards. For the dog pulling on leash, halting the walk until the dog puts slack in the leash, or turning in the opposite direction away from what the dog wants until he walks on a loose leash toward his prize will not only punish the “bad” behavior, but also teach him what behavior you prefer. The couch destroying dog brings to mind the laptop demolishing toddler: if she doesn’t know that what she’s doing is wrong, and is only trying to play because she’s got nothing better to do and needs to burn some energy, punishment is useless. Instead, we need to make sure the things we value are not accessible to the dog or child through proper management, and the “toddler dog” needs to have a rotating, enriching selection of toys along with plenty of good exercise to keep from getting into trouble.
Living with a dog is very much like living with a toddler who has had too much sugar, only the dog will be like this for many years. That is why training, management, proper nutrition and exercise are absolute requirements, and much more effective than most forms of punishment.