This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Increases!”
You knew I would get around to talking about punishment, right?
Q: If you yell at your dog when she barks, is that positive punishment?
A: Only if the barking decreases over time. (And how often does THAT happen?)
So the answer is, “Not usually.” Or honestly, “Almost never.”
Positive punishment is the presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that decreases the strength of the behavior.
Positive punishment is not merely doing something a dog doesn’t like after they do something you don’t like. Again, we must look at the consequences, just like with reinforcement.
What usually happens in the barking scenario, if we are honest about it, is that the barking is interrupted. This has nothing to do with whether punishment is happening or not, however. Punishment depends on future behavior. We’re looking for that decrease. So if your dog barks Every. Single. Time. the doorbell rings even though you yell at her Every, Single. Time–no punishment is going on there since she is just as barky the next time. (And you know she’s likely practicing it when you’re not there too, right?)
I’m serious about the most common outcome in the barking situation being that there was no punishment. How often have you heard someone say, “I yelled at my dog after he barked, and he barks a whole lot less now! Now I only have to yell every once in a while to keep him from barking at all!”
If we only had to yell a couple of times to get a behavior to stop, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
I’ve read that yelling is even less effective with birds. Apparently, some screaming parrots think human yelling is quite a lot of fun!
What Is It, Then?
In all seriousness though, am I saying that therefore yelling is intrinsically great and harmless and OK? Of course not. For some dogs, it’s very aversive. And if a behavior is not changing, you can’t hide behind that and say it’s OK since there is no P+. That’s still no excuse to hurt, intimidate, or scare your dogs. Many of the ineffective uses of aversives we see come down to plain abuse, not punishment or negative reinforcement.
On the other hand, a yell can be neutral, or it can be a great thing. And some rough and tumble dogs living in noisy households think nothing of yelling. They don’t even notice.
And for dogs who are initially bothered by yelling, that can be changed. When I’m startled, I tend to yell, “Hey!” I’m a pretty quiet person and have a quiet household and yelling “Hey” used to scare a couple of my dogs. So I took some time earlier this year to classically condition it, just as I conditioned Clara to have a positive response to other dogs barking. I would take a dog out of earshot of the others, yell “Hey,” a few times, and pay up each time with a nice treat. I built up in intensity. After each dog had a few turns over a few days, I did it with all three together, then we took it to real life. Now they know that if I lose it and yell, it’s “yippie!” time. My yelling is a predictor of a treat. The yelling is similar to the sound of a can opener, a dish being scraped, or supper being measured out. I did the conditioning because I’m human, and I absolutely do not want my dogs to be scared of me.
So I have to smile when people insist that yelling is positive punishment. Not in my household it ain’t!
Some people include “angry” tones of voice when conditioning their dogs to respond to their names, and I think this is brilliant. (Just don’t start out that way! Do a few thousand repetitions with a nice voice first. Check out the “Classical Conditioning” section of this post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) So even if the human is tired and cranky when they call their dog or speak to him, the dog still associates their name with great stuff.
I was inspired to write these two posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.
This is not nitpicking. This is the guts of the science.
Go back and check out the other post in this pair: “Only if the Behavior Increases!”
- Is it Punishment if you Withhold the Treat?
- Shut Down Dogs Part 2
- Threshold: It May Not Be What You Think
- Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement
- OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?