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Using Punishment

Punishment is the application of a stimu­lus after a behavior, with the conse­quence that the behavior becomes less frequent or less likely. Most people assume the stimulus has to be unpleas­ant, but that is not always the case.

Any stimulus that has the effect of lowering the frequency of a behavior it follows is a punisher, by definition, even if it is not painful. One of our current cats had a tendency to pester us for food at 5 a.m. One quiet "hsss" was enough to stop him from banging around the blinds, and eventually he learned to wait until we got up for his food.

What is punishment?

Animals will do almost anything to avoid an electric shock, even a low level shock. Perhaps this is because shocks are so unnatural, or they interfere directly with nerve cells. Whatever the reason, electric shocks penetrate when other punishers fail to work.

Whaley and Mallott (1971) told of a nine-year-old, mentally retarded boy who caused himself serious injury by head-banging. Here is how they described the treatment that changed his life for the better:

The boy had to be kept in a straitjacket or padded room to keep him from hurting himself. This prevented normal development; he acted more like a three-year-old than a nine-year-old.

Left unrestrained in a padded room, the boy banged his head up to a thousand times in an hour. Something had to be done.

The researchers decided to try a punishment procedure. They placed shock leads (electrodes) on the boy's leg, strapping them on so he could not remove them. Each time he banged his head, they delivered a mild shock to his leg.

The first time he banged his head and was given a shock, Dickie stopped abruptly and looked about the room in a puzzled manner. He did not bang his head for a full three minutes, and then made three contacts with the floor in quick succession, receiving a mild shock after each one. He again stopped his head-banging activity for three minutes.

At the end of that time he made one more contact, received a shock, and did not bang his head for the remainder of the one-hour session. On subsequent sessions, after a shock was given the first time Dickie banged his head, he abandoned this behavior.

Soon the head banging had stopped completely and the mat was removed from the room. Later, a successful attempt was made to prevent Dickie from banging his head in other areas of the ward.

Currently Dickie no longer needs to be restrained or confined and has not been observed to bang his head since the treatment was terminated; therefore, in his case, punishment was a very effective technique for eliminating undesirable behavior.

The psychologist working with Dickie stressed that the shock used was mild and, compared to the harm and possible danger involved in Dickie's head banging, was certainly justified (Whaley and Mallott, 1971).

Forty years later, this technique was still being debated. It worked and spared the child further self-injury, plus it stopped a destructive habit that might have resulted in serious brain damage.

However, many people simply categorize any use of electric shock as torture. They reject this type of treatment, no matter what the benefits.

Electrical fences are used to contain horses within a field. The jolts are experienced by human caretakers accidentally when they bump into a wire. They are unpleasant but not horrible, and of course they cause no injury.

The remarkable fact is horses will test an electric fence once, then avoid it. Unlike barbed wire, the alternative to electric fencing, horses cannot get hung up on an electric fence or injure themselves on it.

A horse owner could turn off the shock generator, like Solomon and colleagues did in the famous research on avoidance learning in the shuttle box. The horses probably would never test the wire to see if it was still electrified.

Treatment of Uncontrollable Sneezing

If you try to identify the common element in problems that respond well to punish­ment with mild electric shock, they often involve a stuck circuit. A reflex is triggered again and again, for some reason, and it just will not stop. In these situations, the unique ability of electric shock to "penetrate" is a real asset.

Here is another case from Whaley and Mallott (1971). It involves uncontrollable sneezing in a 17-year-old girl.

She sneezed every few minutes for six months. Her parents spent thousands of dollars consulting with medical specialists, but nobody could help.

The therapists attached an electrode to the girl's arm. When she sneezed, an microphone triggered a mild shock to her arm.

How does the case history of the sneezing girl illustrate therapeutic use of electric shock?

"The shock began as soon as the sneeze was emitted and lasted for half a second after its cessation. Within a few hours the sneezing became less frequent, and six hours later it had stopped completely.

"For the first time in six months...the girl spent a full night and day without a single sneeze. Two days later she was discharged from the hospital and, with occasional subsequent applications of the shock apparatus, her sneezing remained under control.

"...The total time that the teenager actually received shocks during the entire treatment was less than three minutes." (Whaley and Mallott, 1971)

Punishment of animals can have negative side effects. Animals lose their trust of humans who punish them harshly. That makes medical treatment and other interactions difficult. Also, animals often fail to learn from punishment because they do not know what specific behavior is being punished.

To be effective, a punishment must occur immediately after a behavior. 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 half-bite. (Cats do this to humans, too.) The punishment does not cause injury, but it conveys disapproval, and it comes immediately after the problem behavior.

Punishment from the Environment

Dunbar (1988) noted punishment is seldom effective with cats. If a cat owner sees a cat performing a forbidden act such as scratching the furniture, and the human punishes the cat, the cat merely learns to do the behavior when humans are not around (the human becomes an S-). 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 are some negative side effects of punishment? What typically happens when a human tries to punish a cat?

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. The cardboard is 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 noisily 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 is "punishment from the environment" and how can it be used to keep cats off the kitchen counter?

Sometimes cats get into the nasty habit of defecating or urinating on a carpet. Once the problem starts, it is likely to continue. Enzyme treatments sold at pet stores can help eliminate the odor, but they do not eliminate all traces of it. The odor can "set 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 behavior 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 at places that sell these devices, they work when all else has failed. They are a good example of punishment from the environment.

Another helpful step, when this problem occurs, is to feed the cat at the exact spot where the accident occurred, after deodorizing it with an enzyme cleaner. Feeding is not associated with bathroom areas, so cats are less likely to repeat their accident if they are fed a few times at the same location.

What are several reasons dog trainers recommend against harsh punishment?

Dog trainers recommend against 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 such as praise. DRO (differential reinforcement of other behavior) can be used to eliminate most undesired behaviors in dogs.

If you like horses, you already know that trainers who handle wild horses no longer "break" them, the way they did a century ago. Modern horse trainers use positive techniques, winning horses over with gentleness and consistent positive rein­forcement. That results in a horse that enjoys human company.


Dunbar, I. (1988). How to train your cat. Cat Fancy, 31, 24-28.

Whaley, D. L. & Malott, R. W. (1971) Elementary principles of behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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