Negative punishment, a further step forward

Publicado el 19 de marzo de 2015

Negative punishment is one of the most widespread and advertised conditioning processes. It consists of the removal of a positive stimulus contingent with the emergence of a conduct that we wish to eliminate.

It is important to clarify from the outstart that negative punishment is not a sort of panacea to get rid off every kind of conduct. It is only useful with regard to operant behaviors, that is, those behaviors which have no self-reinforcement processes attached so that their emergence depends on the association with other reinforcers. Thus nobody should harbor hopes of getting rid off a behavior like digging in the garden by letting the dog doing it at will!

Doubtless it is very important to know the scope of application of a process. However, it is equally important to know the cases where that process is not effective. Few things have been as deleterious to the public image of negative punishment as its indiscriminate prescription also to sort out emotional problems and problems associated with self-reinforcing behaviors. Anyhow, the reputation of this process among professionals is excellent. The reason is that it enables us to consistently eliminate many conducts without generating conflicts or resort to aversive stimulation.

There are several ways of applying negative punishment but the most popular one consists of the suppression of the positive stimulus acting as a reinforcer for the targeted conduct. As a rule of thumb we advise clients not to reinforce dogs when they offer the unwanted behavior. In fact this is a mixture of negative punishment and extinction that will only yield slow results. We can speed up the behavior change if we organize things in such a way that dogs are being positively stimulated before engaging in the problematic conduct so that the pleasant stimulation can cease as soon as the problematic conduct begins.

For instance, suppose that we want to prevent the dog from jumping on persons to greet them. A simple way of doing this is to caress and pamper your dog while sitting on the floor. As soon as the dog jumps on you, you will end up the session by standing up. This intervention requires more preparation but it produces faster and more consistent results than following the typical advice of “ignoring dogs when they jump on you and pampering them when they stay with all four paws on the floor”. The reason is that with the latter advice dogs learn that they should jump once in a while to trigger the owner’s sequence of behaviors. It happens very often with regular owners, not with seasoned professionals hopefully, and this slows down and even blocks any progress. By organizing things in such a way that the positive stimulus is always present before the inadequate conduct emerges we will clean up the dog’s head, as well as the owner’s! This way a crisp and fast improvement will be achieved.

A more rare application of negative punishment may be carried out through satiation. Satiation is an application of negative punishment and it consists of keeping the positive stimulus active until it is no longer positive, either because of its prolonged administration or its intensity. Very often this is the most entertaining, effective and easiest way to eliminate certain operant behaviors. I sincerely think that my clever use of negative punishment through satiation is responsible for many of the private customers I have taken away from my competitors.

Whenever I had to go to an interview with potential customers and their dog kept on jumping on people I knew that no other firm would cause a better impression than ours. Why? It is simple. Customers would be confronted with three different strategies from our competitors. As we will see, even if all of them are effective when they are applied well, they are less amusing and clients do not appreciate them as much.

  1. Negative correction by the trainer like blocking the dog with the knee, bothering the dog in the hind legs or stepping on the leash to prevent the dog from jumping. Most of the clients do not like this strategy and, in fact, it may provoke a strong impression on many dogs. Furthermore, it requires skill.
  2. Punishing through suppression, which means to ignore dogs actively until they stop jumping. Once the bad behavior stops, the trainer will reinforce the dog. In addition to the problems I have already pointed out with this kind of intervention, some customers do not enjoy watching how their dogs keep on insisting. This phenomenon is due to the shape of the extinction curve and the over-arousal caused by the change of attitude from a social partner. Moreover, on that first session you can forget about achieving satisfactory results, judging them from the client’s point of view.
  3. Counterconditioning the dog with other conduct like sitting down. This is not always easy for clients on their first training day. They will be overloaded with information about what to ask their dogs for, what to teach them and what to assess.

So when I arrived with satiation in my toolbox, I said to my clients: Ok, your dogs want love and affection, let us give them that! So I told them to hug their dogs, and caress them enthusiastically. A few minutes later the dog would say: hey, that’s enough! But of course, we would keep on loving them!

The owners had fun doing this, it felt easy even on the first session and it produced faster results than any of the alternative strategies. I insist that the other strategies also lead to excellent results if applied correctly, but they require more time and clients like them less at the beginning.

I remember how funny it was for a client whose border collie was a sofa squatter not to let him walk down so that he would give up the habit of using it! Of course do not try this with lazy dogs, you may need some thirty hours for the intervention to work. It is very important that you adapt your techniques to each individual, as you wouldn’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

I really hope that you have enjoyed this article because I have unveiled one of my top commercial secrets to write it!


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