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Punishment from the Environment

Punishment often has negative side effects, Animals lose their trust of humans who punish them, making medical treatment and other interactions difficult. Punishment can cause avoidance and emotional disturbance. When humans punish animals, the animals often fail to learn because they do not know which specific behavior is being punished. To be effective, a punishment must occur immediately after a behavior, and it need not be injurious. A mother wolf (or lion or tiger) shows effective punishment procedures with its babies. Misbehavior is followed by a quick and largely symbolic act of dominance, such as a swat or pretend bite. The punishment does not cause injury, but it conveys disapproval, and it comes immediately after the problem behavior.

What are some negative side effects of punishment? What typically happens when a human tries to punish a cat?

Dunbar (1988) noted that if a cat owner sees a cat performing a forbidden act such as scratching the furniture, punishment is not usually effective. If the human punishes the cat, the cat merely learns to avoid the human (so the human becomes an S-). Typically the cat will continue to perform the same forbidden act when the human is not present. If the human discovers evidence of a cat's forbidden behavior upon coming home, and punishes the cat, the cat learns to hide when the human comes home. This does not mean the cat feels "guilt." It means the cat has learned that the human does unpleasant things when first arriving home. The cat does not associate punishment with the forbidden behavior, which typically occurred much earlier.

What is "punishment from the environment" and how can it be used to keep cats off the kitchen counter?

If punishment from a human does not work very well, a good alternative is punishment from the environment. It works with all animals, even cats. Dunbar points out, "A cat will only poke its nose into a candle flame once." For similar reasons, "a well-designed booby trap usually results in one-trial learning." For example, a cat can be discouraged from jumping on a kitchen counter by arranging cardboard strips that stick out about 6 inches from the counter, weighted down on the counter with empty soda cans. When the cat jumps to the counter it lands on the cardboard. The cans go flying up in the air, and the whole kit and caboodle crashes to the floor. The cat quickly learns to stay off the counter. Meanwhile the cat does not blame this event on humans, so the cat does not avoid humans, just the kitchen counter.

What conditional response bedevils cat owners? How do automatic gadgets help?

Sometimes cats get into the nasty habit of defecating or urinating on a carpet. Once the problem starts, it is likely to continue, because even enzyme treatments designed to eliminate the odor do not eliminate all traces of it, and the odor "sets off" the cat in the manner of a conditional response. The behavior occurs when no human is present, and punishment by a human does not deter it, for reasons discussed above (punishment comes too late and the animal fails to connect the punishment with the behavior).

What to do? The problem is urgent and motivates online buying, so entrepreneurs have responded. Gadgets designed to deter this behvaior typically combine a motion sensor with a can of pressurized air or a high-frequency audio alarm. The blast of air (or alarm) is triggered by the presence of the cat in the forbidden area. According to reviews by troubled cat owners at places like, these devices sometimes work when all else has failed. They are also a good example of punishment from the environment.

What are several reasons dog trainers recommend against harsh punishment?

Dog trainers also recommend not using harsh punishment. Some dogs will "take it," but some will respond with an active defense reflex that could involve biting, even if the dog is normally friendly. (Terrier breeds are particularly prone to this problem, and a usually-friendly dog can surprise a child with a vicious response to being harassed.) Moreover, punishment is unnecessary with dogs. Dogs have been bred to desire the approval of humans. They respond very well to positive reinforcement as simple as a word of praise.

When punishment is used with any pet or domesticated animal, it should be as mild as possible. For example, if cat owners have a kitty that likes to wake them up too early in the morning, the simplest and gentlest approach is negative punishment or response cost. Simply put the kitty out of the room. If that fails, a squirt gun works. Gentle methods are to be preferred with all animals. Trainers who handle wild horses no longer "break" them, the way they did a century ago. Modern horse trainers win horses over with gentle and consistent positive reinforcement. It works just as well and results in a horse that enjoys human company.

How should cat owners respond to unwanted morning awakenings?

Is electric shock punishment ever justified? Some people argue against all use of electric shock, in principle, as if shock is always inhumane. But electric shocks come in all sizes. Small shocks do not cause physical injury, and they are very effective punishers that discourage a repetition of harmful behavior. Sometimes this is necessary and desirable.

What is an example of "effective and humane" use of electric shock?

In the case of electric fences used by ranchers, for example, shock is effective and humane. You can touch an electric fence yourself, and although you will get a jolt, you will not be harmed. But even large animals like horses will not test an electric fence more than a few times. Then they avoid it. Avoidance behaviors are self-reinforcing, so large animals will continue to avoid a thin electric fence wire, even if the electricity is turned off. They do not "test" it the way they test non-electric fences (often bending or breaking them in the process). Electric fences also allow farmers and ranchers to avoid using barbed wire, which can injure animals severely.

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