No Punishment Here

“We don’t use Punishment here”.

I say this a great deal at my barn (I often phrase it nicer depending on the circumstances). But it’s one of the first things I tell anyone coming to my farm. The intentional use of punishment isn’t allowed at my farm (stuff happens, sometimes we unintentionally punish or we make a mistake or have a habit reaction) but we aspire to punishment-free. The most common response is “You let them get away with Everything?!” (even if they don’t say that outloud). They think this means you allow your animals to walk all over you, to demand food, to be spoiled or to “dominate” you!! (Buzz word – I know!) But fact of the matter is, when we train well we don’t need punishment. Period. “Positive does not mean Permissive”.

First of all why should we avoid punishment?

Here’s the simple list, we can go into this further later – but the goal of this post isn’t to explain why punishment is bad, but rather why it’s unnecessary.

1) Violence begets Violence (I hit you, you hit me, the cycle repeats until someone is afraid enough to stop)

2) If you are adding a physical aversive you can physically hurt your learner

3) This doesn’t promote an active and happy learning environment, it results in a lack of try, the learner gives up – why would they try and risk being punished? As R+ trainers we need them to try and to offer behaviors – so this damages our future ability to train.

4) This can poison your cues AND your relationship!

5) Timing, consistency and appropriate intensity are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to master

6) The behavior can return when the punishment stops, you can only punish what is happening – not what happened 2 minutes ago or what will happen tomorrow

7) The behavior may only stop when *you* are there to punish it, so what was really punished, the behavior or being with you?

😎 It encourages the learner to find ways around you – sneakiness, do the behavior without being caught, or do the behavior but get away before you react! (My Belgian still leaps away when he thinks he’ll be punished, he doesn’t avoid the behavior he thinks will be punished but rather does it then leaps away to avoid the punishment).

9) Punishment is reinforcing to the punishER this is why we do it.

(When your dog is barking at you non-stop because they want to go out, and we loose it and yell at them, they may stop barking for a moment, hide in fear for a few minutes – we were Negatively Reinforced (relief from the barking) even if just for a moment. The punisher was reinforced for the punishment – the behavior was temporarily stopped, but not effectively removed as the problem still persists, the dog needs to go out.)

Ok that’s a lumped, quick and dirty summary of why we don’t use Punishment, all the side-effects of punishment. But like I said, we want to discuss why we don’t NEED it and how we can avoid it.

Let’s think about our ABC’s again (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence). We put a great deal of focus on the B-C of our training, what behavior did our animal do and what consequence do we offer to adapt that behavior the way we like. But there is a great big “A”-hole we need to fill! Antecedent arrangement is the number 1 way we can avoid the need for punishment. You don’t need to punish a behavior that doesn’t happen!

Find out what triggers the unwanted behavior and change it. Is the dog barking because they need to go out? Let them out at the first signs, before they start barking. Does your horse buck when you ride because the saddle doesn’t fit? Get a saddle that fits. Fix the problem so the unwanted behavior doesn’t happen.

Don’t forget about protected contact!! PC is not just for you but for your learner as well. Especially animals who have experienced a great deal of those pitfalls of punishment we just listed. They may be afraid to try, react emotionally and impulsively to defend themselves when things go wrong. This isn’t their fault or their problem. Working in PC can help encourage their try without fear and give them the learning room they need. This also prevents us from needing to use punishment to defend ourselves. “Remember, best block, no be there”- Mr. Miyagi. Change the way the horse feels and behaves before moving into full contact, allowing them and you to be comfortable in your contact – so neither of you need to become defensive.

What if we can’t? If we’ve adapted all the antecedents we can control, but life isn’t perfect we still have a few options. We can train the absence, for example if they always bite the lead when we’re leading them, reward when they’re not biting the lead. Wait for a good moment when they’re walking with you nicely and reward – this turns us towards teaching an incompatible behavior. If they’re biting the lead while we try to walk with them – but you can’t get rid of the lead and can’t get rid of the emotional triggers that cause this behavior (which should be our first steps!) we can train them to walk as calmly as possible, facing forward, with their nose beside us. The use of a target can be helpful for getting understanding and success in the early stages, just capturing those good moments can also be helpful.

If we arrange “A” as best as possible, then set all the R+ Consequences to counteract the unwanted behavior, we should end up with no unwanted behavior! It’s really as easy as that. We own our horses. They live in our world. We control every aspect of their life, whether we or they like it or not.

*No behavior they offer is their fault*.

If they are performing an unwanted behavior it’s not because they are naughty or fresh (and definitely not because they’re “Dominant”), but rather because that has been reinforced in the past (even if it’s self reinforcing – biting the lead can be a self soothing behavior or let out some frustration).

So change your A’s and focus your C’s to what is constructive and preventative and your horses’ B’s will always be what you want.

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