Saturday, February 4, 2012

Correction and Punishment, are they the same?

For much too long, we have relied on positive punishment to make unwanted behavior “stop, now!”. What exactly is the dog learning? That his owner is unpredictable? That sometimes “sit” means a cookie is coming, and sometimes “sit” means a collar correction? Or worse, we teach dogs that life is all about avoiding bad stuff, and that owners are the source of bad stuff.

In my experience, the reasons most people employ positive punishment are:

1 – to get quick “results” (i.e., behavior stops)
2 – they don’t know how to train an alternate behavior with positive reinforcement
3 – it’s an emergency management situation

““Punishment happens”, and there is no escaping it.” That is not a justification for using it as a primary training tool. Your point, I think, is that even when we strive to use positive reinforcement with our animals, punishing things happen. Even stopping a (positive-reinforcement) training session can be perceived as punishing by the animal.
If my dog is about to steal my Thanksgiving turkey, I will stop him. He will be disappointed. That is not a training plan, it’s an emergency intervention. If I am a good positive-reinforcement trainer, I will recognize the need to train an alternate behavior and create a positive-reinforcement training plan. What I won’t do is put a shock collar or choke chain on the dog, bait the counter with smelly food, and punish him every time he tries to go for the food. Would both methods achieve the same goal? Probably, if they were well implemented. But ask the dog which method he would prefer.

What I wonder is, if we as humans (vs. dog trainers) have our own preconceived notions about that word punishment. I know that I do based on what my parents called punishing me and how my parents dealt with my misbehaviors. And no, I was not abused, beaten or the like or even spanked. But I was grounded, yelled at, and had privileges removed. While that is not horrible by any means, the word “punishment” still has negative connotations for me (because who wants to be grounded when you can go roller skating?), no matter the science behind it. However, the word chosen by the scientists is what it is. I believe our own life experiences influence how we view certain words in society or dog training and admittedly my own perception makes me hate just the word.

“Correction” is too often used as a euphemism to make the use of aversive stimuli acceptable to clients/students.  But the definition of correction means to change a response by showing what is real and truth.  A correction, by definition, is not delivering an aversive to mark what is wrong.

As a teacher you can mark/grade work which means crossing out the mistakes and ticking the correct answers then counting them up to find the mark/score to be awarded. Useful for ranking. Not for much else. It is NOT correction.
To me a ‘correction’ is rightly ‘showing the student the correct way’.

You can correct a paper/work by indicating where a mistake was made and writing is either the ‘correct’ answer or give advice to the student of how to it would have been better answered. Or you can ‘correct’ a physical exercise by actually showing the student how the exercise should be done.

So in dog training, “Correction should be going back a step and working from where the dog actually does perform as wanted.
It is NOT teaching to only indicate ‘mistakes’ without letting the student actually learn the ‘right’ answer.

Correction is used synonymously with punishment and aversive in the world of dog training, and yet it really is something totally different.

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