Punishment Only Tells Your Pet What NOT To Do

Sometimes I’m amazed at what great lengths people will go to in order to punish a behavior they don’t like or want. Other times I’m shocked at the ideas that people come up with to stop unwanted behaviors.

Did you know that some people will suggest carrying a hot potato in your hand to stop your horse from biting? When the horse goes to bite, you let them bite the hot potato instead and supposedly the horse getting burned in the mouth will cure them of their biting ways. I can’t help but wonder, how did someone come up with this idea in the first place? Seriously, if people were even half as imaginative in coming up with ways to set their animals up for success, none of our animals would ever exhibit undesirable behaviors! 

When I talk to people about their pet’s undesirable behavior, the only thing on the person’s mind is how to get the behavior to stop. This is understandable, considering that many people come to me as a last resort and are ready to get rid of the animal if I can’t “fix” it. (Hint: people like me shouldn’t be your last resort. We should be your first solution) Sometimes it can be a real struggle for people to see that there is a way to resolve their problems without punishment.

My first question when someone describes one of their pet’s undesirable behaviors is, “What do you want them to do instead?”

Think about this scenario, for example: one of my clients has a young dog that jumps on guests when they enter the home, and even bites (very friendly and playful, but seriously?) at their faces. On my first visit, he had my chin in his mouth! Clearly the dog thinks this is great fun. Unfortunately for him, his person and most of her guests do not. She wants this behavior to stop and she wants to know how I’m going to stop it. Time for the reframe, “What do you want Bingo to do instead?” Blank stares all around.

Should he sit or stand and just bark at them non stop until they pay attention to him?

Should he grab their hand in his mouth and drag them through the house?

Should he run circles around them so that they can’t take a step without falling over him?

You see, when your intent is merely to stop a behavior, the absence of that behavior leaves a vacuum. A space for another behavior to fill. So now you have another behavior that you’re going to have to punish until your pet stops that behavior too. 

This is the trap that people end up falling in to. They’re constantly punishing behaviors, hoping that when all the undesirable behaviors are gone, only desired behaviors will remain. 

Now let’s flip the coin and look at the other side. What if instead of trying to stop all of your pet’s undesirable behaviors, you teach them what you want them to do instead

Going back to Bingo for a moment, we decided to teach him a nose to hand target behavior so that when guests entered the home, they could present their hand for Bingo to target and his people would reinforce him with a bit of food scattered on the floor. This eliminated the immediate problem of jumping up at people’s faces because he was now focused on their hands and on the floor. He was also reinforced by guests because they pet him and talked to him more when he kept all 4 feet on the floor. 

Consequently, the nose to hand target also helped resolve the problem of Bingo not coming when called and is playing a huge role in teaching him to walk beside his person on leash, instead of forging ahead and pulling. Imagine that! 3 undesirable behaviors resolved with one desirable behavior! This is the power of reinforcement. The more you reinforce a behavior, the more you’ll get that behavior. If your pet is busy doing all of the behaviors that you reinforce, they won’t have time to be doing any of those undesirable behaviors that you don’t want.