Punishing your pet- Giving them information to make better choices next time

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as published in the Coloradoan in December 2012

We love our pets. But all pets do something wrong sometime. The key to helping your pet grow and deepen their relationship with you is to know how to handle them in those moments when they make less than perfect choices.

We need to think about what punishment is supposed to be. Punishing your pet should give them information about what you don’t want. It is not about creating a relationship through force or conflict.    Traditional forms of punishment are called positive punishment, meaning when your pet does something you don’t like, you do something back to them. The lesser used but far more effective method is called negative punishment. This means taking away something they want from the situation for a short period of time, such as withholding a treat, not giving attention or petting.  You can think of this as a sort of “time out”.

Here are some guidelines for using punishment:

  • Only use punishment on voluntary behaviors. Treating emotional behaviors such as barking, growling, hissing and other forms of aggression  with punishment is not advisable. Other methods exist for helping your pet feel better in these situations.
  • Plan to use negative punishment whenever possible. Losing a valuable resource like you, even momentarily, is a big bummer. This means that training and being with you needs to be fun, so being without you isn’t. Just give them a short break, 10-60 seconds, so your pet gets a chance to repeat the situation soon and can make a different choice. They may need multiple repetitions before they catch on.
  • Let the environment do the teaching so something startling isn’t paired with you.   Sticky tape on counter tops is more effective than a yelling owner.  Then the counter will be avoided, not the owner.
  • Reward what you like.  Let them know what they can do that pleases you.

Try this instead of that:

  • You are  trying to teach your dog to sit before their dinner.  “Sit… sit… sit…” you say, growing impatient.  You finally grab their collar and make them sit.  When you do this, you rob them of realizing the natural consequences of not sitting.  If their food bowl was coming next,  try putting the food bowl away and sitting down ignoring them without saying a word.  Give them 30-60 seconds.  Repeat as needed.  Only give them one chance to listen before you stop proceeding to feed them.
  • Your cat meows at you when you aren’t paying attention to them.  You turn to them and say “Quiet” and then push them away and continue working on your computer.  A few seconds later they are back again.  It’s entertaining to watch you come unglued.  Instead, as soon as the meowing starts, stand up and walk away.  After a short break, return and sit down as though nothing happened.   They will look so astounded now they will entertain you.

Look for more ideas next time on raising a thinking pet and enhancing your relationship.

Dr. Jennie Willis teaches classes in animal behavior at Colorado State University and provides consultation for owners about their pet’s problem behaviors.  For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit www.AnimalBehaviorInsights.com

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