Does punishment work?

Why does any human or animal avoid pain or discomfort?  

It’s to escape things which might be harmful.

So, imagine we apply some kind of pain or discomfort to a dog who growls at a child (or is reactive to anything else for that matter). What would happen in the dog’s mind? Could it be, child = pain, best avoid children? Or could it be, growling = pain, best avoid growling? It’s most probably a mix of the two, with many other factors thrown in, for example, location, noises, distance from the handler, etc.

Whatever happens, I don’t see any possibility of the dog feeling better. I guess punishment isn’t supposed to make you feel good. So, why do we apply such punishment? We apply it so the dog thinks the behaviour is uncomfortable, and stops doing it. But why was the dog growling in the first place? Perhaps he’s frightened or anxious around children, or perhaps you think he’s just a ‘bad dog’. Whatever the reason, I think we can agree that applying punishment isn’t making him feel better about the situation.

Humans are big punishers. We really do apply punishment a lot. From a stern look, to fines, to prison, to wars, to punching your neighbour in the face for using the wrong wheelie bin.  How many punishers can you think of that are part of human culture? It’s really no surprise that humans think we should also punish animals – you could say it’s in our DNA.

However, not a single punisher is designed to make us feel better. They are designed to bring about behaviour change. They bring about behaviour change (if they work) by making us fear the consequences of the behaviour.  But here’s the thing: the £1000 fine you got for punching your neighbour in the face didn’t make you like your neighbour. Probably it made you resent them even more and if you get the chance you’re going to do something even worse to them. The same might apply to the speeding fine you got for doing 40 in a 30 limit. It doesn’t make you want to drive at 30, it makes you avoid getting caught but you probably still speed up when you know there are no cameras and you probably feel resentful every time you drive that same stretch of road.

Punishers often don’t work on humans, and we understand them! We know why they’ve been applied. What chance does the dog have?  Imagine you walk the same route to work each day. As you walk past the guy at the bust stop, he sticks his foot out and trips you up. You didn’t see his foot come towards you and assumed it was an accident. But the next day, the same thing happens. Now you’re a bit (or a lot) suspicious; what the hell is going on? Now you get anxious even walking towards the bus stop, your adrenalin kicks in, your heart starts to race, you give the guy at the bus stop a wide berth……..but as you walk past he steps towards you!  How does this end?  In fear? In retaliation? In aggression? In running away?   Would the situation be improved if your reaction was punished with some kind of pain or discomfort?  NO, but we do this to dogs every day. Punishment can change a behaviour, but the anxiety will increase and might one day have devastating consequences.

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