There are many different facets within the animal training field. Dog training, horse training, falconry, marine mammal training, elephant training, etc. All of these fields of expertise have their own thought process around behaviour, and this is one of the ways we can communicate to each other. One of our passions here at Zoospensefull is trying to connect all these facets together to share the thoughts about behavioural modification within those different fields. One way is through our Facebook page Zoospensefull – conditioning a creative way.

At Zoospensefull we talk a lot about positive reinforcement techniques and strategies but we shouldn’t forget that more techniques exist. Let’s have a deeper look into another one that is used often. 

If we say the word punishment, we directly think about causing pain or discomfort to something or someone, it has a very negative association. The reason we have this feeling is because that is what we have been raised to associate. If a child does something wrong, then it needs to be punished. Punishment is used in many different ways, but if we look at the definition of punishment, described in the science of behaviour, it doesn’t mean anything more than “decrease in behaviour”. There are many different ways to use punishment. In the marine mammal world, I’ve seen ‘timeouts’ being used, in the scientific theory ‘timeouts’ are an example of a negative punisher (taking something away to decrease behaviour). In the equine world you see the use of whips, mouth pieces and spurs on the boots of the riders; all used for positive punishment. The dog training world uses quite a lot of punishers as well, the shock collar, the choke chain or one of the interesting ones, “the gentle leader”. The free contact elephant world uses a bull hook and birds of prey trainers use jesses, which can be considered punishment to the birds in the early stages of their training. 

Why is it that punishment is used in such a wide range of cultures? The reason is simple, punishment is a very effective tool. With punishment you can reach goals quickly but the question arises, is the use of punishment a good thing? I think most people would agree, there are too many cons that come with using punishment. You get animals that are manipulated or forced into doing behaviours, your relationship will decrease, the chances of an animal becoming frustrated and aggressive are pretty high and the stress related behaviours are coming in much faster. Animals will become uncomfortable around you and in some cases, you block the choices an animal has. “It’s my way or punishment!” Who wants to train an animal with fear anyway? 

A bull hook used to guide elephants in various positions.

I’ve heard trainers tell me, ‘Well Peter why do the animals still return to me if I use punishment, if you tell me this isn’t working well for my relationship?’ Think about it like this, if you are too afraid to make decisions for yourself for fear of making the wrong one and being punished; you would rely on somebody else to make a decision for you, just to avoid that punishment. To self problem solve, you go directly to the person you rely on to make a decision for you. This is a manipulative relationship. 

Now to get a bit deeper within the science of punishment. This technique is used as a consequence to a behaviour, this means that you can’t punish an animal. You punish the behaviour you’ve asked the animal to do. This is where it comes in challenge comes in, because the understanding of many of us, is not necessarily based on the science of consequences but more on how we perceive punishment. 

Anxiety can be the outcome of using punishment.

What often happens is that punishment is used with animals that are labelled with a variety of excuses. The animal doesn’t pay attention on purpose, the animal is ignoring me, the animal knows that it’s not allowed to do that, the animal is lazy, I need to be the alpha here, etc. The issue is that the trainer will punish the animal because the animal has to know who is the boss, or the animal has to know it can’t ignore the trainer.

What I find very interesting to watch is dog owners taking their dogs for a walk, without leash, in the forest. The dog runs off to go after all the distractions there are in the forest. The owner calls the dog but the dog doesn’t respond, their voice raises quickly. After 5 calls the dogs runs back to receive a good portion of punishment by the owner. Just a tip, you might have actually trained the dog to respond to a higher raising voice as signal, if not, please reinforce directly anyway, now the dog decided to make the choice of coming to you instead of doing what it was doing. Remember you train for tomorrow.

Whip used in the horse racing sport.

Within the horse training world you see many horse riders “dominating” the animals they work with. Riders are trained from a young age to understand how they move a horse forward with their whip and the mouth piece and sometimes even more tools. This is what I find interesting in this culture. We accept that we teach young kids to use these punishing tools without questioning those techniques. The techniques are placed in different words so it is accepted and it’s ‘okay’. The problem isn’t necessarily that we do, but the problem comes from the teachers who will explain directly, “we’ve always done it that way and this is the way you train a horse, without questioning their techniques”. All of this while we explain to kids from a young age, that abuse is not okay on anyone. 

I’ve seen in many different places punishment being used with a variety of animals. Not only dogs, horse, elephants or marine mammals but also camels and cows. Personally I’m not the type of person that will directly label a person as ‘bad’ because they choose to use punishment. I want to know the way they think and why they think that this is the best solution. What I discovered is that it’s not necessarily a choice they made between reinforcement or punishment, but it’s about the knowledge the person has. The choices of using punishment is the way they have been taught to train animals. They have never seen anyone using the reinforcement techniques or have been taught only the punishing techniques. So at the end of the story it is a matter of understanding and experience but also a willingness to learn. 

There are still these trainers that are confident using punishment, even though they know about reinforcement. Those trainers use excuses like, in the wild those animals will get pushed around to teach them manners, I’m not hurting it, the animal should know who’s dominant, an animal learns by trial and error, I’m the pack leader and so on. 

The whole point of this discussion is not that punishment is good or bad. The whole point is that we have to understand how punishment works scientifically. As B.F Skinner explains it, it’s nothing more than a technique to decrease behaviour. If we add negative to is it means taking something away that decreases behaviour or when we add positive to it, it all of a sudden means adding something that punishes the animal. 

B.F. Skinner holding a Pigeon.

Punishment should not be the dominant technique used for training animals and trainers should understand the outcome of using punishment.

Remember punishment is a consequence to behaviour, not a way to show how dominant you are to the animal. We all want a positive relationship and work in a team together with our animals. Animal training should be fun for both sides. In this day and age, I believe that we know so much about behaviour and their consequences. We know just by looking at the positive outcomes for the animals, that we can shape behaviour. 

I hear you saying ‘But what about if the animal shows problem behaviours?’, I can only give one answer, an animal does a behaviour that results in a reinforcer. The behaviour might be a problem for you, but for the animal it is reinforcing. Somebody told me once, if you don’t like the animals choice, train the animal to make a different choice. Great point of view! 

The animal field is changing and training techniques are being challenged. There are some great trainers out there that try out different ways to better their techniques for the animals they work with. More and more trainers start to work with reinforcing techniques instead of punishing techniques. Many of our articles are focussed on how we are able to increase wanted behaviour but to make ourselves better trainers we have to understand all the techniques!


  1. Great article and a good reminder for “real live” siruations what punishment can (‘t) achieve. It is so easy to never question why you do things the way you do them


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