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Pet Perception Management by Dr. Rolan Tripp

Examining Outcomes of Punishment

Using hitting to punish a pet for biting is a risky choice for many reasons.


Although most people think they are "punishing" the pet for biting, by definition, punishment (delivered correctly) decreases a behavior.


Correct use of punishment (correct in this instance means there is a good chance of success) requires three important elements.


First, the punishing stimulus (what the person does such as hitting the pet) must be delivered within a second of the behavior the person wants to decrease.


Second, the punishment must be applied every time the behavior occurs (which is difficult when the person is absent or not close enough for the one second rule above).


Third, it must be strong enough to be effective which is hard to do without causing fear or harm to the pet .1


Since most people can't meet all of these three requirements, the most likely result of hitting as a punishment is a pet who learns to avoid the person who does the punishing and a pet who is more likely to fear (and bite) a person's hands.


Thus pet parents (although unaware) who hit pets are more likely to be increasing the chance the pet will bite again not decreasing the likelihood of a future bite.


Punishing pets is associated with four detrimental side effects2:

  • Increased aggression

  • Generalized fear

  • Apathy

  • Escape-avoidance behaviors

Another potential pitfall of punishment is that the pet parent is failing to teach the pet what to do, which is easily done by using positive reinforcement—a stimulus that increases the chance a behavior will recur.


Teaching the pet what to do instead of punishing it for what you do not want it to do is usually the safer and more effective solution to biting and other unwanted pet behaviors.

Punishing pets using physical force can damage the relationship between people and pets and often results in a pet who is fearful and anxious around family members as well as others.


Remember this rule of thumb:  "If the behavior didn't matter to the pet, the pet wouldn't keep doing it."3  Pets tend to repeat behaviors that they perceive to be in their best interest.


Approach all pet problem behaviors by trying to understand how the behavior is reinforcing to the pet.


If a pet's underlying motivation can be found, the pet parent can look for a more desirable behavior the pet can learn to do in place of the unwanted behavior.

For example, if this pet bites only when the pet parent walks by a certain place in the home, such as a window or door, or when the pet parent raises his voice and talks in an excited manner with someone, then the pet  may be biting out of fear.


When the pet parent then throws the pet to the floor, the pet has succeeded in escaping the scary stimulus. So the pet has learned that biting is an effective means of escape, and its behavior has actually been reinforced instead of punished.


Determine why an pet does something and how that behavior may be being reinforced, and then identify a new appropriate behavior the pet parent can teach and reinforce.


Continuing with this example, where fear is the root of the problem, the pet parent should consider teaching the pet words that mean "back off" or "sit" or some other behavior that can be rewarded instead of punishing the biting.


The new, desired behaviors can be encouraged to repeat by giving tiny tasty treats.


Eventually, the biting behavior will be extinguished (stop occurring) if that behavior no longer serves any purpose from the pet's experience and perception.


It is also critical that the pet parent observe the pet to recognize any signs of fear and the stimuli that causes it.  A program of desensitization and counter-conditioning can be used to decrease the pet 's fear of these particular stimuli.


Desensitization means the pet is exposed to the stimulus that triggers the fear from enough distance to decrease the fear response even though the pet is aware of the feared stimulus. The idea is to get the pet more comfortable around the stimulus.


To speed up the comfort, give the pet a tasty treat for looking at the stimulus that creates the fearful response (counter-conditioning). Your goal is to shape a new response to the stimulus. Instead of the pet focusing on fear, the pet begins to focus on "where's my treat."  Over time, the pet can be a little closer to the stimulus without a fearful response. Each time the pet gets completely comfortable, another baby step forward is taken and the counter-conditioning (treat for non-fearful behavior) begins again.


Once a pet learns that one behavior is regularly followed by a positive reinforcement, it will usually choose that behavior more than the behavior that is not being reinforced.


Reinforcing appropriate behaviors should always be tried first. Punishment should never be the first choice and can only be recommended after all other safer, more humane methods have been tried. If punishment is to be used, it must be used carefully, according to the rules described above and abandoned when it does not appear to be working, as in the case described here.


Understanding how pets learn and how to safely decrease an unwanted behavior while increasing a more desirable substitute can be complex. If you feel unprepared to manage a particular behavior problem, work with a Veterinary Behavior Consultant who may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist.


1. Schwartz B, Wasserman EA, Robbins SJ. Operant conditioning: Basic phenomena. In: Psychology of learning and behavior. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001;132-164.
2. Azrin NH, Holz WC. Punishment. In: Honig WK, ed. Operant behavior: Areas of research and application. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,1966.

3. Friedman SG, Haug L. From parrots to pigs to pythons: Universal principles and procedures of learning. In: Tynes VV, ed. The Behavior of Exotic Pets. Blackwell Publishing, in press.

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...::::::: Copyright 2000-Present  All Rights Reserved by Rolan Tripp, DVM  and Susan Tripp, MS, Animal Behavior Network and Associates :::::::...