Positive-reinforcementHave you ever had someone tell you that they have “tried every other option” when attempting to train and/or change a behavior and, as such, plan to use aversive or punishment based methods?

Sometimes people feel exasperated and overwhelmed when there is not immediate behavioral change or when things are not progressing according their their timeline.

Often times when positive reinforcement appears to fail, the difficulty is with the delivery. Timing, interaction, and/or consistency may be inaccurate or missing from the equation.

Resorting to punishment should only happen with a through understanding of the learning theory behind the implementation.

With that in mind, anytime that we introduce a stimulus to a situation with the intent of stopping or decreasing behavior, by behavioral definition, we are in the positive (think adding/subtracting type of “positive”) punishment quadrant of learning theory.

One of the dangers of using positive punishment (the addition of punishment) is that when using punishment we run the risk of side effects which include: escape avoidance, apathy, aggression, and generalized fear.

Another risk associated with punishment is that it is reinforcing to the punisher. It “feels good” to make “progress.” Too, while it may appear that we have “fixed” the problem, we may actually be creating new issues.

Also, learners can habituate to punishment, causing the person delivering the punishment to need to continually escalate (from a spoken “no” to a gruff “no” to a yelled “no,” etc.) the intensity of the correction.

Furthermore, by using punishment, we are not actually teaching what it is that we want the learner TO do.

As an example, instead of using the word, “no,” try to ignore the behavior that you don’t like while at the same time teaching and asking for an alternative or incompatible behavior that you would like to see. And then reinforce that behavior so that it happens again!

Behaviors which are reinforced will, with patience and consistency, be repeated, while those that lack attention (are ignored) will eventually extinguish.

To ameliorate frustration, as mentioned above, while ignoring the behavior that we don’t wish to see continue, we ask for something to replace that behavior with and reinforce this new behavior that we like and want to see more of!

Positive reinforcement should always be your “go to” technique to enhance your bond, improve communication, and teach appropriate behaviors.

(Note for additional tips on positive reinforcement training I’ve written a pocket guide for deaf dogs which is applicable to training in general: http://www.amazon.com/Deaf-Dog-Joins-Family-Communication/dp/1507578261)