Accidental Punishment

The various outcomes of our shaping sessions, punishment notwithstanding
Can you guess which dog got accidentally punished during a shaping session?

I charged straight into a positive punishment scenario by accident recently.

I’ve been somewhat in the training doldrums lately, probably because I am putting so much energy into finishing my book. I have several training activities that I fall back on when I don’t have much energy. They are fairly unchallenging for me (read: I can’t mess them up too badly) but still fun for the dogs. Even those have been hard to do lately.

But the other day I had some time and energy and decided to play a shaping game with each dog. We don’t shape that often, but they all enjoy it, and it gives their minds a good challenge.

Two of the dogs, Summer and Zani, used to have a default backing up behavior that they would offer in excess whenever I set up shaping games. This was my fault: my shaping setup resembled my backing up setup too much. They had similar setting factors, if you want to get technical about it.  I managed to get the dogs unstuck a while back with some carefully arranged object interaction sessions. (It’s easier to get the idea to go forward instead of backward if there is something to go forward **to**.)

So I decided to set up an object interaction session again. I set out a target stick, a plastic lidded box, and a laundry basket with a plastic dumbbell in it. I put the plastic box on top of one of their mats so it wouldn’t skid around.  I had an idea of a behavior for each dog, but was also willing to decide on the fly if someone did something unexpected.

Clara’s Shaping Session

Clara’s session was easy. The dumbbell in the laundry basket was for her: she loves to pick things up. I stood about 15 feet from the array of objects and it took Clara only a few clicks/treats to get over there. I stayed at a distance. This helps the dogs learn that the reinforcement zone is not always right on me, and also sets me up to practice my treat tossing.

It didn’t take much to get Clara over to the basket and looking in. The basket wanted to skid on the floor so I did go over there and brace it, at which time Clara was happy to put her two front feet in. Then I shaped her into picking up the dumbbell. This is normally very easy, but it was a slight challenge with her front end in the basket and back end out. A good time was had by all.

Summer’s Shaping Session

Summer is my super-duper shaper, which is interesting since she is my crossover dog. Crossover dogs are often reluctant to offer behaviors, but what can I say? Summer got over it. And turned out to be a creative genius when it came to thinking up stuff to do. But this session didn’t require a virtuoso performance. I shaped her to go to the target stick, which I had put behind the other stuff. She still got to it in a minimum of clicks. I needed to make more of a challenge, so I put the stick in the laundry basket with the dumbbell. She needed to hop in the basket to nudge the stick, and that she did. She’s great about getting in things.

Zani’s Shaping Session: Punishment Happened!

You knew it would be Zani, right? My easy dog/problem child.

So I had intended the plastic box for her. She’s done quite a bit of perch work and enjoys it. No big deal. We messed around a bit: she investigated the target stick and the laundry basket. Finally she noticed the box. She was directly facing me, with the box between us, and put her two front feet up on it. Yay! Click, toss the treat. Then she got on again! Ditto. On the third time, I had a sudden thought to treat in position rather than tossing the treat to reset her. So as she was placing her feet on the box, I charged right over there straight at her. She’s my pressure sensitive dog. She backed off the box in shock and scooted backwards, though she did collect the treat I had hastily thrown.

I retreated back to my area, but would she approach the box again? Nooooo. So I quickly went back to rewarding other behaviors. About 15 treats later, she was willing to go to the box again. I didn’t charge at her. It took about 5 more treats to get her putting her feet on the box.

Wanta Play Behavior Analysis?

Four quadrants of operant conditioning
Four processes of operant conditioning

OK, here we go. We could do at least two different analyses, because not only did a behavior decrease with positive punishment, but a behavior increased/maintained as a result of my aversive high speed approach too! I’ll leave that one as an exercise for interested commenters. Let’s go over the punishment.

We always start with the behavior that changed. What was it? Zani putting her feet on the box. Increase or decrease? Decrease. Can we identify why? Pretty sure it was my running full tilt at her. Why did she put her feet on the box in the first place? We were having a shaping session and there was a box there. So the ABC looks like this:

  • A. Antecedent: There’s a lidded box on the floor
  • B. Behavior: Zani puts her two front feet on top of the box
  • C. Consequence: Eileen abruptly runs straight at her
  • Prediction: Zani putting her feet on the box will decrease

Did the behavior decrease? Oh yeah it did! Zani loves to get on things and has been reinforced plenty for it. She had just gotten in the groove of offering “box” behaviors but stopped offering them after I charged at her and didn’t interact with the box again for quite a while. That’s a decrease. There was also a decrease in her behavior in general. She got tentative and ever so slightly shut down after my barging into her space.

Why is it called “positive” punishment? Remember that positive and negative in operant learning terminology refer to whether a stimulus is added or taken away. In this case Eileen charging at Zani was an added stimulus.

So How Bad Was It?

Positive punishment is the learning process that we pretty much try to avoid at all costs. So how hard should I be knocking my head against the wall?

As usual, we ask the dog, and we do this by observing her response. Did we see side effects? Referring to the list on my post “7 Effects of Punishment,” we probably got small doses of # 1, avoidance, and #4, apathy. It remains to be seen whether we will see any avoidance of me outside of training, but I could easily see her getting sensitized about my approaching her. During the session I saw a decrease in behavior from her in general, which could fit under #4. Luckily, this was only over a brief period. Zani started offering behaviors again, and then was getting back on the box willingly (i.e., no pressure from me) within about two minutes. Susan Friedman points out that when an animal has a large reinforcement history and “trust account,” the animal can typically handle life’s little unpleasantnesses well. So this probably wasn’t a horrendous tragedy.

On the other hand, I have worked very hard to pair my approaching and entering Zani’s space with good stuff since she is sensitive to body pressure. We play games where I invite her to enter my own space as well, especially when I am standing up directly facing her. That’s just hard for her, polite little dog that she is. So chalking up another “Eileen is a boorish clod and she scares me sometimes” experience was not ideal. Even just that one time may set us back just a bit in the work I do to make her comfortable with me. In other words, there is a good chance that there is some fallout of the avoidance type, though it may be subtle.

The side effects of punishment listed are generally overt behaviors. There’s also the basic issue that it can scare or hurt an animal. Whatever the animal’s behavioral response, that’s not a good thing.

So how to think about this? I don’t think being alarmist is helpful. Yes, I punished my dog, but it’s over and done with and wasn’t a tragedy (even from Zani’s point of view, I’m pretty sure, which is the one that counts). But neither do I think this is the kind of thing to brush off.  It set us back just a little bit. Zani might be a little extra wary with me in certain situations for a while. I’ll have to work that much harder to make approaching her in various ways into a happy thing.

Accidentally running up in my dog’s face is not something most people would design as a deliberate punishment. People who do use positive punishment in training would probably be amused that I am even classifying it as such. But one of my points is that even such a benign-sounding action can have fallout. Why use punishment to decrease one behavior when it will simultaneously create problems with others? You are left always trying to fill a leaky jug.

And Zani, though sensitive, has a pretty solid temperament and is used to my ways. What if I had been working with a fearful dog or even one who was new to me? A mishap like this could have meant a setback of days or weeks.

Anyone want to share their own accidents? I’m not asking for true confessions about deliberate aversive use. Plenty of us have those in our histories. Let’s talk about that another time. I’m more interested in the boo-boos. I bet I’m not the only one….

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25 thoughts on “Accidental Punishment

  1. I always find negative reinforcement behavior analysis challenging, but it’s definitely worth trying to do! So my guess is:
    Antecedent: Eileen moves toward Zani, who is on the box
    Behavior: Zani skitters the heck away from Eileen and the box
    Consequence: pressure off–Eileen is no longer charging toward Zani (you even retreated–even more pressure off)
    Prediction: Zani’s backing off/moving away behavior will increase, particularly re: the box?

    Here’s my latest terrible boo-boo that I have not fixed. Like Zani, Nala is a really pressure sensitive and polite sort of dog (although she is a great deal bigger than Zani!). I introduced a paw targeting behavior and named it “punch!” because the goal is for Nala to run out to the target, smack it gleefully with both forepaws, and then charge back to me for her reward. The method we were following suggested increasing enthusiasm for the behavior before adding distance, and using that enthusiasm to make building distance easier. I wanted to try it, because distance is difficult for us. We were supposed to build enthusiasm by using restraint, by the collar or chest, before releasing the dog to the target.

    Even though I had introduced restraint before–chasing treats and toys–and Nala seemed to be enjoying it in that context, she wants nothing to do with being restrained before being sent to her paw target. The paw target behavior also decreased, even though in terms of ABC she’s not being punished–the aversive thing is happening before the behavior. It’s still enough to poison the whole paw targeting experience, though, as I learned the next time we worked on it and Nala was avoidant of the target, and her enthusiasm for the game had disappeared. That behavior is on hold while I figure out how to work my way out of this hole I dug.

    1. Yep, you identified the behavior negatively reinforced. Thanks for playing! The ABC starts with the aversive antecedent of me approaching Zani straight on and fast. And Zani’s behavior of moving away from body pressure was at the very least maintained, maybe increased.

      I’m sorry about your mishap with Nala. I hate when that kind of stuff happens! She’s lucky though; some people might not have noticed the cause and just thought she was “being stubborn.” Knowing the cause will help you fix it. I can’t tell from across the Internet whether a classical or operant approach is appropriate, but if it were me I would be tempted to change location and the type of target and try reshaping her to hit something else. See whether removing those two triggers might clear out some of the anxiety that got attached. So sorry about that!

      1. Thanks–that’s really helpful! I was already planning to change the target and use really, really great reinforcement. Now I’m planning to do it on the living room rug and to sit on the floor when I introduce the behavior, too. I think that will change the picture pretty dramatically.

        It *was* really frustrating, mostly because Nala found the behavior really fun before I messed it up, ironically. Fortunately, I’d have to be pretty thick to mistake her for a stubborn dog. Once I asked her to do a distance down while we were hiking and she climbed a cliff and tried to lay down vertically at my feet in order to do what she thought I was asking. If that’s not willing, I don’t know what is!

        Oh, and I meant to write before–thank you, as always, for being open about sometimes not being in a training sort of mood, and making mistakes. And I love that you set up shaping sessions to play to what each of your dogs finds fun! That’s such a great idea, and I’m going to steal it. 😀

        1. Nala is so cool! Sounds like you have a good plan. Let me know how it goes.

          Thank you for your thank yous. As you know as a fellow blogger, sometimes you just don’t know what is really effective or helpful…unless someone tells you. So thanks a billion for your

            very specific

          kind words.

  2. Can you elaborate on your reasons please, where a punishment can cause a behaviour to “increase / maintain. My mind was lead to think about interrogators using punishment in order to elicit information from captors.

    1. Oh-oh Graham, you made me go back and read what I wrote. Here is is:

      “a behavior increased/maintained as a result of my aversive high speed approach too”

      The **aversive** caused a behavioral increase, so it’s best not to refer to it as a punishment in that context. But I get your question now.

      And actually you are on the right track with torture. It is used as a classic example of negative reinforcement.

      Antecedent: (Some terrible thing is being done to the captive)
      Behavior: Captive gives up desired information
      Consequence: The terrible thing stops

      Meghan identified the much less dramatic R- example in my scenario. Zani’s moving away from pressure was negatively reinforced by the reduction of that pressure. Meghan has the ABCs in her comment.

      Thanks for a good question!

  3. My accidental punishment experience with Ember was during a session practicing targeting my hand with his paw. I was using high value chicken as a reward because he’s a bit touch sensitive, and my clicker hand got a bit greasy – I went to press the clicker and it flew out of my hand and smacked poor Ember on the head! Needless to say, he was not keen on putting his paw near me after that, and also showed some aversion to the clicker-holding hand for a little while. We had to go back to targeting a disc and work back up to my hand over a few sessions. The experience also served to increase my wristband wearing behaviour with my clicker – I was wondering what quadrant that would be?

    1. Awww, that’s an unfortunate one! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been thinking whether we might venture into the behavior changes of the trainer, and there you went with it! I bet you know. Smacking your dog with the clicker is aversive to you too, right? Something you might want to avoid? Sounds like wearing your wristband is getting negatively reinforced. (Good for you!)

  4. Without disagreeing, I’ll take those “accidents” from a different view. You charged at Zani with a treat, she backed away, and that incident effected her future behavior for over 15 attempts. I rarely do most of the other exercises you use, but this is one that every dog receives. Nothing to do with an operant quadrant, but simply a part of life with people that will happen to every dog, sooner or later. I don’t care if we call it +P or whatever, my goal is to make that no longer true. So that the dog is either comfortable with a person running up with a treat, OR they learn and feel good about a sufficient avoidance behavior, so that they rapidly recover and their subsequent behavior is not impacted. Once either of those goals is reached, you then have either +R (if they end up liking it and respond) or are outside of the operant quadrant (no change in subsequent behavior). In both cases, you have at least reduced the perceived intensity of a possible aversive.

    As for how I teach these alternate avoidance behaviors, you’ve already described that many times, just for different goals, except you’re not teaching here a specific behavior, but experimenting with several acceptable possibles to see which best helps the dog, then reinforcing that.

    You later speak about a mishap like this possibly causing a setback of days or weeks. Well, that case I’d call a real accident, which I try to always avoid. For this case with a dog like Zuni, the dog would have been tested with about a dozen incremental behaviors to estimate aversive reactions before I’d ever run at her. Deliberate aversives? Well, I might stand 10 feet away, then suddenly turn around and if the dog is initially scared, then I guess that’s a deliberate aversive, just a very controlled one.

  5. Hi Eileen. Huge fan of your blog, and I often pin posts from here on pinterest (I am S T/ the Pettiepets board on Pinterest). One thing I noticed is that when you pin a picture, the description of the picture is often a description of what’s seen in the picture (e.g. Woman holding a treat towards a large, tan dog etc.) instead of just the title of the post. A) For pinning it is more relevant to have the title blogpost as the description, because then you know what post the pin links to and B) I figure it would be easier for you to just copy the title (or some version thereof, i.e. ‘About DS/CC’) instead of making longer descriptions. I just copy-paste the title of the blog into the pin and that is absolutely no problem so in case you prefer the descriptions the other way then please continue. I’ll pin and love your posts anyway – they’re awesome 🙂

    Another thing – in my pins I sometime (not that often I think) copy a somewhat small fragment of your text – for example: “The reasons some trainers object to negative reinforcement include that it employs an aversive, the association with the aversive can be generalized, it is on the undesirable end of the humane hierarchy, it is linked with reactivity and aggression, and has other undesirable side effects for both the animal and the trainer. The main issue isn’t whether there’s a human wielding the aversive, it’s that an aversive is being used in the first place.” Because I think it is such an awesome quote and because if I were someone who didn’t know the post I would click on that pin to read more. But I just realized that perhaps it is too much – perhaps you would rather I just pinned the title of your post or one line summarizing what it is about – e.g. ‘why object to negative reinforcement’? In case you feel like that I will gladly stop.

    Again – love your blog, keep up the good work (if you want to 😀 )



    P.s. English is not my first language so I apologize for any bad english and for the bad grammar – I never learned how to use commas in english *blushing*

    1. Asta how great to meet you here! You’ve got the best dog stuff on Pinterest (and not just because you pin my stuff)! I knew I found a gold mine when I found your board.

      I know what you are talking about with the photo descriptions. When I first started pinning I didn’t know to change that. I thought I had fixed most of those after pinning but I guess not. (Once in a while it still happens when I pin from mobile; I try to go back and change it.) It is my goal to have the blog title or a quote–either is fine, so what you are doing is perfect. You have a lot more experience at this than I do! (Those descriptions fill in there, in case you don’t know, because Pinterest picks up the “Alt” tag from the website photos. That’s where you put a description of the photo for people who use browsers that speak. I wish there were a better system, since I don’t want to change those.)

      Your English is great. Who needs commas!

      To the other readers, I have landed pretty firmly on Pinterest as the place where I “curate” content, that is, categorize and stash things I think are worth sharing. If anybody wants to follow me or view my boards, here’s the link:

      Thanks again for writing, Asta. I wondered who Pettiepets was!

      1. Thank you for the kind words! 🙂 I didn’t realize that the descriptions were meant for the ‘reading browsers’ – that is so cool and considerate of you! I guess it is an example of ‘there is always a reason’ 😀

        I usually pin from your website and often also some of the older posts so you could have changed the newer descriptions without me noticing and in either case please don’t feel like you have to change it – I was just wondering the ‘why’ of the operation which I know now.

        Thank you so much for writing such an awesome blog! Oh and thanks to the ‘four-legged furries’ as well 😀 Have a nice day 🙂

        1. Hah! Yes, There’s Always a Reason. But in case I wasn’t clear, those descriptions are for the blog only. They don’t need to stay that way in Pinterest. A description of the whole piece is better than a description of the picture.

          The furries say thanks back!

  6. I thought to add something that happened to me this summer. Lilly my nervous / fearful, mostly of unknown humans, GSD 4 year old female, is taught to sit to the right of the garden gate, on slabs, prior to exiting the garden. Her lead is clipped up to her harness in that position.The whole process being reinforced with the good stuff. I then open the gate, she now has time to calmly gather info on the scary outside world. I step out, a good time to just check around for any likely stimuli, then release Lilly, who now joins me at heel. We dont walk in these environments but go by our van to fields and open spaces, ect. One fine morning we were about to leave when, Lilly , refused to sit beside the gate, instead preferring to lay on the grass, looking at me and sometimes adding a bark. So we changed the plan and clipped up on the grass, temporarily. What was going on here then? It happened again, and became almost normal for a week or so until I suddenly realised what the problem was! ANTS! Ants had made a nest under the slabs, and when Lilly sat there, they took offence and the workers …bit her bum. Hence the preference to lay on the grass :-). I dealt with the ants, appropriately, and about one week later, the status quo had resumed.

  7. Your post challenged me to think about issues in terms of P+. I think that in agility, when I expressed displeasure (with myself) or had Jarah repeat a sequence, it was P+ because her reaction was to slow down. She learned that by slowing down,there was fewer incidents of displeasure or repeating a sequence because there were fewer mistakes.

    A=agility trial location
    B=brisk agility sequence
    C=jarah’s mom is displeased
    Fallout was Jarah slowed down and lost enthusiasm. OOPS.

    Solution was that I trained myself to always act pleased with our performance (the mistakes weren’t hers after all) and never repeat a sequence. But i paid more dearly than that, because I had to work hard with her to regain enthusiasm.

    1. Well you challenged me back. I had to think really hard about this. How do we assess a whole chain of behaviors?

      Would we define the slowing down as the direct effect of the punishment (less behavior) or fallout (less enthusiasm)? Both?

      You strained my brain.

      1. I think it’s the direct effect of the punishment: The behavior is performing the obstacles with speed and enthusiasm. After the punishment (handler’s displeasure and being forced to repeat same sequence), performing obstacles with speed and enthusiasm is diminished. Fallout can be avoidance behaviors like sniffing, stopping to scratch, zoomies. The increased stress can also cause dogs to bail on difficult obstacles like the teeter or weaves. (Also, the dog could eventually get a negative Conditioned Emotional Response to the agility ring.)

        1. Good analysis. To further operationalize the behavior, we could just base it on speed, right? Running is a different behavior from trotting or walking. (I’m sure jarah’s behavior change was not that extreme; I’m just thinking out loud.) Running could diminish. Interested in what jarah’s mom has to say!

          1. This is a good learning experience for me: talking only about speed is better because it removes the evaluation of the dog’s inner state (“enthusiasm”) from the equation, right?

            1. That’s what I was trying for. We could probably operationalize what enthusiasm looks like too, or rather, describe the behaviors we are looking for that we think indicate a happy inner state. That’s just harder. See, I can hardly describe it!

              Good exercise for me, too!

          2. Jarah became more cautious and yes, she ran slower. We definitely made fewer mistakes – correction, *I* made fewer mistakes, because we went slower. Also, sometimes she’d come into the ring and indicate with her body language that she didn’t want to run at all. She didn’t resort to sniffing in the ring, just went slower through the whole run – on the flats and the equipment.

            It’s important to “know your dog” – Jarah is sensitive to negative emotions in others-dogs, people, other animals. And “know yourself” too, being willing to change our own behavior to minimize the fallout.

            Thanks for the interesting discussion.

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