Recently someone asked a very good question about the use of punishment when dogs jump to greet people. The person made the analogy that if a dog were to interact with a porcupine, the dog would get hurt and therefore, not likely go near a porcupine again. Something unpleasant happened so the dog learned not to approach porcupines. An example that could apply to humans is that of a hot stove. When the stove top is red and we touch it, we get punished (burned) and therefore, we learn not to touch hot stoves. Why, if punishment works so well for the above examples, shouldn’t we use punishment to keep dogs from jumping on us? It seems very reasonable and rational that many people would come to the conclusion that the use of punishment would be the preferred method to use. Hopefully, after reading this, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of the use of punishment and behavior, and well…..our relationships with our pets.
First, when punishment is used, it only needs to be used once, perhaps twice (bottom line…very few times) and the unwanted behavior should stop. That’s the whole point of punishment after all. But how many times do you find yourself or see others repeating a punishment over and over again? I see people doing it quite literally for years!
Now, for arguments sake, lets just say a punishment technique worked for a greeting behavior ( i.e. dogs jumping up on people). Does that mean we should use it? Aren’t we ethically and morally obligated to use the least aversive techniques as possible? And if so, how does the example of the porcupine and the hot stove make any sense at all? Where does that fit into learning, behavior, and punishment?
First, when a dog/person approaches something that is unsafe or could cause significant harm to him/her, it makes sense ethologically that we only approach that item once and learn that the “item” is not safe and we should stay away. After all, those who don’t get hurt/harmed survive to pass on their genes. Here is the difference. Dogs do not have “relationships with porcupines”. They do not need to interact with them on a daily basis, depend upon them for shelter, food, and quite frankly, everything else in their life. Porcupines do not structure the dog’s day, activities, and meals. The same goes for a person and a stove. If porcupines and stoves were significant relationships in our lives, we would all be in trouble! What would happen if punishment was dolled out for the most benign actions such as an approach (as is the case with a dog and a porcupine) or touch (as is the case with a person and a stove), with a person whom we depend on to care for us, teach us, guide us, and protect us? Imagine a child being punished for trying to hug their parent, or going to tickle them? Family dynamics where punishment is used in inhumane ways leads to very dysfunctional relationships and puts the child in a very sad and harmful position that can quite literally, change who that child becomes. Can you imagine being a bystander and see a happy kid running to his parent’s arms outstretched for a hug and upon getting to the parent, the parent pushes/knees them in the chest or slaps them? A look of horror would likely cross your face. (This is why you might see those who know something about dog behavior cringe when they see people knee a dog for a greeting).
The relationship between a dog, or any other pet, and a person needs to be viewed more like a parent/child relationship in that the human needs to be viewed as kind, caring, loving, trusting, and of course being able to provide food, shelter, health care etc. Now, let’s go back to the jumping for greetings example. Why do dogs jump to greet? It’s simple – to get attention and say hello. The dog is as innocent and joyful when they go to do that as is the child who wants to hug or tickle. To punish this behavior is a misuse of punishment and can create a very confused, anxious pet. Can you just imagine a dog being so excited to see his or her person and enthusiastically go to say hi but ends up getting a big slap in the face? What must that dog be thinking? Do you think this helps build trust in his person as a guardian or good leader? Or do you think it is more likely that he would be confused, shocked, scared? How would this alter the overall relationship? To complicate things, bigger dogs may interpret being pushed back or kneed as their person’s way of “giving attention back or playing” so what does the dog do? They jump harder and longer to continue the fun and them BAM… a big punch to the face and being thrown on their back and screamed at. At this point, the poor dog surely believes his person is schizophrenic because his or her behavior makes no sense at all!! Ready to make it more complicated? Sometimes when a dog jumps up to greet because they want attention, many people will actually give them attention by petting them and looking at them or talking to them. So now that same greeting behavior is sometimes reinforced, sometimes punished, and sometimes greeted with more play behavior from the person (from the dog’s perspective). Sometimes I can’t believe there are any sane dogs out there given how we confuse them! So, if we shouldn’t use punishment, what are we suppose to do for dogs who jump to greet??
We simply need to teach them that in order to get attention, which is what they want in the first place, they must learn to say please. How do dogs say please? They sit. If they sit and stay seated, they get the attention they so desperately want.
We are so quick to recognize what we don’t want our dog friends to do that we often forget to teach them what we do want them to do. Unless you know something about basic training, there are valid reasons why this method appears not to work. There are different humane methods to teach dogs how to sit for greetings and having a trainer guide you through it is important. Some key concepts to know when teaching dogs to sit to get attention are positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and extinction bursts. If you are working with a trainer who is not familiar with these concepts, find another trainer.
I sincerely hope, this has helped shed some light on why we should not punish our dogs for jumping and I hope people continue to ask these very important questions.
*By the way, negative punishment is very different from positive punishment, which is the kind of punishment that was used in all the examples above.
Emily D. Levine DVM
Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Animal Emergency & Referral Associates
Fairfield NJ 07068