Home > Behavior > Unknowingly Punishing Desired Behavior

Unknowingly Punishing Desired Behavior

We have the opportunity to reinforce desired behaviors such as asking our animals to return to us on cue.

Yep, I see it happen all the time. I see people unknowingly punish desired behavior and unknowingly reinforce undesired behavior. I myself have even done it knowingly, unknowingly, and not aware it has happened until the situation is over. I love sharing stories I see as I see them unfold or take place. The incident I’m about to share was one I have shared in a lot of recent workshops because it happened so quick and unknowingly to the animal caretaker.

Punishment is the procedure delivering an event that follows a behavior that decreases the future rate of that behavior. For example, little Johnnie sticks his hand on a hot stove. He gets burned. Him sticking his hand on the hot stove is the behavior and him getting burned is the event that follows the behavior. I’ve never met anyone that likes to stick their hands on a hot stove, therefore this was probably a punishing situation for Johnnie. The behavior of him running up and sticking his hand on the hot stove is probably going to be punished resulting in it never happening again or at a decreasing rate. This is how we all learn. This is how our birds learn. This is how our children learn. This is how our dogs learn. We move away from things we don’t like or things that bring us undesirable outcomes.

Another example of punishment could be (insert any animal here, I will use an example of a dog) we come home from work and see the dog has peed on the floor. The dog comes running to us to great us at the door and we smack him because we see the mess he has made on the floor. We may have just punished the rate of behavior in which the dog greets us at the door. Dogs aren’t punished. Birds aren’t punished. People aren’t punished. Their behaviors are punished. Their future rate of behaviors are punished. If the rate of behavior is not decreasing, punishment is not happening. This is also how we learn. We move away from things we don’t like and events that bring about undesirable outcomes.

Reinforcement is the procedure of delivering an event that follows a behavior that also increases or maintains the future rate of that behavior. The reinforcer must follow the behavior. If that behavior increases, then that behavior has been reinforced. For example, I am standing at the front door having a conversation with a friend and my nephew comes up and starts tapping on my arm to get my attention while saying “Aunt Lara. Hey, Aunt Lara. Aunt Lara.” I ignore him to try to finish my conversation with my friend. My nephew starts tapping harder. Then he starts pulling on my sleeve. I turn to him and say “What, what, what? What do you want?”. I may have just reinforced the behavior of my nephew using more force in getting my attention. If it was my attention that he wanted and he finally received it after delivering a nagging tug on my sleeve, I may have just reinforced his nagging behavior of tugging on my sleeve. How would I know if his nagging tug was reinforced? I will know if it happens again. More than likely if it worked for him this time, the next time he may skip the tapping on my arm and go straight for that nagging tug because it is what brought him his desired outcome previously.

An example with a companion pet or animal (insert any animal here) would be Rico, my parrot yelling “Hello, Hello, Hello” when I walk out of the room. Rico doesn’t

If attention is what the bird wants and you deliver it as the bird is screaming, you may be reinforcing the birds behavior of screaming.

necessarily like it when I walk out of his sight when he’s out of his cage. This is an increasing undesired behavior I have knowingly reinforced. He may yell “Hello. Hello. Hello.” when I walk out of the room. If the ‘hello’ isn’t working for him to bring me back in his line of sight, he may try another behavior to see if it will work. He may begin screaming and if I run back into the room to quiet him down so he doesn’t wake up my husband, I may have just reinforced the behavior of Rico screaming. If it is my attention he wants, I just gave it to him. And guess what that does? That puts value to the behavior of screaming for Rico. I have more than likely just reinforced Rico’s behavior of screaming to get attention while punishing the behavior of him saying “Hello”.

Now, back to my main example of what I observed one very snowy day this past winter. We had a huge snow storm and I can’t remember how many inches of snow it delivered but it was enough to give our city a level 3 snow emergency. What that means is there are no vehicles allowed on the road or you will be ticketed. (Ah ha, an intended punisher….the ticket. If the behavior of you driving decreases in level 3 snow emergencies, this behavior has just been punished and the punisher is the fine. Sorry, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity to define another example.) So there was not a car in sight. It was a beautiful day and a quiet day because there were no cars on the street. After about 5 hours of being trapped in the house I began to get restless so I went to the window to see what everyone in the neighborhood was doing. I noticed a woman walking her dog down the street. She didn’t have her dog on a leash. There were no cars on the roads so I understood why one would want to take advantage of this opportunity.

What I did see was a perfect example of her potentially punishing a desired behavior in her dog. If I would have run for my camera, I would have missed it all. Since I am a behavior nut, watching this whole event was pretty exciting. This is what I saw…

This woman was walking next to her dog down the street in front of my house. The dog was healing nicely beside her with no leash attached to his collar. She passed my house and I continued watching her. About three doors down from me lives a vet tech that has two dogs of her own. The vet tech often keeps the dogs outside behind a chain linked fence in her back yard while she’s home. As soon as I saw the dog walking down the street and point its head in the direction of the house with the dogs in the back yard, I began to quickly predict a potential problem or quick thinking in what the woman may do to reinforce the behavior of the dog staying by her side. We shall see “I thought” and I felt my heart skip a beat in anticipation of what behaviors were about to unfold. In the blink of an eye the dog looked right at that back yard and his ears pointed straight up and the dog took off running toward the fence that obviously contained the two dogs. The observable body language I could read from the woman, she made gestures that led me to assume she yelled something to her dog that was sprinting across the street and into the yard. When the woman yelled something the running dog stopped and returned to her immediately. I yelled “Good!” from the inside of my house. I was so into the modifying the behavior that I didn’t realize this woman couldn’t hear me and I didn’t realize that I wasn’t training the dog. What I did see then was the dog return to her very quickly and just as he returned she reached down and attached his leash to his collar. “Oh that’s too bad.” I thought. “Not her fault as she may not know or understand the power of positive reinforcement”. Let me explain.

The dog took off sprinting across the street. A behavior she obviously did not want to see happen. She yelled something to the dog and the dog returned on cue. I said “Good!” because this is the behavior you want, or I would want to see increase. I would want the behavior of the dog running to me on cue to maintain or increase. If the dog performs the desired behavior, I would have rewarded it or positively reinforced it. I would have given a head scratch or a

treat, whichever I thought would be a great reward to the dog at that time. Instead, what I saw was the dog perform the behavior she wanted to see and then

Myself and the beluga whales trainer positively reinforcing the behavior of the whale staying with a scratch to the tongue.

she attached a leash. If the dog doesn’t like the leash she may have just punished the behavior of the dog returning to her on cue. How will we know? We will

know if we were to continue watching her and see the rate of the behavior of her dog returning to her begin to decrease. If as she walked by the next house and her dog took off again and she once again yelled to the dog and the dog stopped but instead of quickly returning to her, he paused and looked at her and then ran back to her, what we would be seeing is the rate of the immediacy in returning to her begin to decrease. The next house the dog may stop, look at her, look at the dogs and then run back to her. At the next house we may see the dog stop, look at her, look at the dogs and then decide to go sniff some doggie butts.

Behaviors are always punished and always reinforced. Some of these behaviors are reinforced and punished before we even have time to think about them. The importance is in recognizing these and taking advantage of effectively applying reinforcement and punishment to the ones we do have the time to see coming for behaviors we want to see increase and decrease. If one thinks they are punishing a behavior yet the behavior is maintaining or increasing, they may want to sit back and re-analyze the situation.

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  1. Rachel Gregory
    April 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Lara, I have also read that when we punish a dog for going poo in the house, it will then think the act of going poo was a bad thing and then start eating poo.

    Also, if the dog came back to you after seeing the other dogs and you gave it a treat, was that not rewarding it for running away? Like a doggie who goes outside and goes to the bathroom who gets a treat afterward. He will start going outside and not peeing and coming back in to try to get the treat. Doesn’t the size of the reward also matter?

    • April 25, 2011 at 9:22 pm

      What great questions! I’ve never heard about the dog eating its poo because it has been reprimanded for ‘depositing’ it. 😉 It could be, but I’ve never heard that before. My specialty isn’t dogs either though. I’m big into identifying reinforcers and punisher and I would say if I saw the behavior of eating being reinforced, I would definitely stop delivering the reinforcer for that behavior. This is called extinction. Extinction is when you identify the reinforcer and then put it on a schedule of 0:0. You stop the delivery of it. That way, the behavior of eating it isn’t reinforced. Did I just repeat myself?

      You bring about an awesome and justified question also in asking if you actually reinforce the behavior of the dog running away when you reinforce it when it returns. You could be. This would be answered if you saw the behavior of the dog running away increase or maintain. Where I would start, which is exactly where I start when training a bird is recognizing the body language of what that dog or bird looks like right before it looks like its getting ready to run or fly away. When I see the ears on the dog perk or the bird crouch to give way to spread its wings, that is when I reward. If you are working with a valued reinforcer, this will attract the attention of the animal and the goal would be to get it to stay to receive the reward vs running or flying off. Obviously you could keep reinforcing the behavior of getting ready to run or fly or you’ve put this on cue. You re-shape the behavior. Shaping meaning rewarding small approximations toward the target behavior. If the target (desired) behavior is to keep the dog healing at the sound of barking dogs, the next step would be able to recognize the body language and also identify when the situation was likely to happen again and deliver the reinforcer for staying when you see the situation likely to present itself.

      That is only one approach. Another approach would be to work on this behavior before the environment has the opportunity to present itself. Teach the dog to target, which means having them touch a designated object with a body part. For example asking the dog to touch its nose to your open hand or teaching a bird to touch its beak to a raised index finger. You can teach this at home before a situation like the neighbor’s dog even appears. Teach the dog “touch”, and touching his nose to your open palm and when he does, positively reinforce. Once this is trained, I would start taking your dog around the house and asking him to touch or “target” to your open hand. Move into new environments. Play new sounds. Play a dog barking on your computer then immediately ask him to target your hand and reward. Do it again, and reward. Do it again and reward. Then move to the back yard, to the neighbor’s yard, to the car. Then take you dog for a walk. 😉

      Timing is the key in when to reward. Mark the behavior you want the dog to identify is the correct behavior. This is a procedure called ‘bridging’ or ‘targeting’. Once the dog hears the bridge you will see them turn and wait for the reinforcement. Bingo!

      • April 25, 2011 at 9:23 pm

        I wanted to add real quick….when you see your dog look in the direction of the barking dogs, bridge and reinforce. What did you just bridge? You bridged the behavior of the dog still standing by your side.

  2. April 25, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Great Question and Reply 🙂

  3. Nancy Eller
    April 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I really enjoyed this blog. Our red tailed hawk figured out that when he stations on a perch, he gets rewarded. He then figured out that if he left the perch then returned he got rewarded. Soon he was training us.
    On another note, at home I started hiding dog treats before I would leave for work in the morning. I think this created a monster because now my dog scrounges and gets into the trash which he has never done before.

  4. April 28, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Hi Nancy and good points, especially about your dog. I’ve trained one of our cats to stand and meow for minutes each morning. That is not something I want to hear. I saw it coming and when I knew for sure it was happening, it was pretty strong. I thought it was cute that each morning before I went into the shower, he would stand next to the shower door and wait for me to go in. When I would go in I would get my hands wet and drip some water into his mouth. Dorky but he liked it. Well what I saw happening was each morning he would start whining waiting by the shower door waiting for me to go in. Yea, I trained him to do that. I hated to do it but I had to stop delivering the reinforcer for the whining before the behavior of him standing and whining got any stronger. His whine is loud and what I find rather annoying because he doesn’t stop. Because I stopped the delivery of the reinforcer early on, the whining has stopped within a matter of days.

    As for your hawk, I bet if you stopped delivering the reinforcer when he left the perch and returned, he would stop leaving the perch. That is if the type of food is of value to him. This way it would place more value to him of giving you the behavior of stationing.

    I so wish I could come and watch you train sometime. 😉

  1. September 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm

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