Why You Should Never Hit Your Dog

Positive punishment is the classic Skinnerian notion in which a stimulus is applied with the aim of reducing an unwanted behavior. 

This post originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here


"Bad dog! Bad dog!"

Even if you're not a dog owner, I'd wager you've heard that aplenty. The firm admonishment is occasionally accompanied by the choking yank of a leash or the stinging whack of a newspaper, and often followed by the guilty canine whimpering down or scurrying away, its tail between its legs. Fido has learned his lesson, its owner might think.

But it probably hasn't.

A select breed of dog trainers, including Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer" on National Geographic Channel, actively recommends the use of what's called positive punishment. This is the classic Skinnerian notion in which a stimulus is applied with the aim of reducing an unwanted behavior. 

For example, say you don't want your dog to jump up on visitors. The next time he jumps up on somebody, you could give him a strong slap on the muzzle in the hopes that he will associate the pain with the behavior. Thus, he will be less inclined to jump up on people. Millan euphemistically terms such punishment as "discipline."

"Make sure you offer your dog the complete package when you bring him into your world,"encourages a blog post on his website. "Along with exercise, food, shelter, and affection, offer him a healthy dose of rules, boundaries, and discipline. Don't think of discipline as punishment, but just one more gift you give your best friend to keep him happy and balanced," the post proclaims in a sweet, yet eerily dystopian fashion.

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But there are a lot of problems with positive punishment. Chiefly, it's not very specific. Dog trainer Pat Miller describes this pitfall in her book The Power of Positive Dog Training. Here's the summary: Say your puppy pees on the living room carpet. Angered, you yell and bark at the piddling pup, causing him to dash away. Congratulations, Miller says, you've successfully scared your dog. But all you've communicated is that he shouldn't pee in front of you or on the living room carpet. Next time, he might simply urinate on a different carpet. The lesson that you wanted to impart -- "don't pee in the house" -- has not been related. Moreover, pioneering research in 1968 conducted by Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania showed that unless you catch and punish the dog in the act, it's unlikely that he will take away any message at all. He will, however, learn to be afraid... of you.  

There's no question that if carried out swiftly positive punishment can effectively reduce undesirable behaviors, but it will also give rise to two unwanted side effects: fear and aggression. In 2009, researchers at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvaniadistributed a survey (PDF) to owners who previously brought in their canines to address aggression problems. On the anonymous questionnaire, owners were asked to outline the training methods they had used with their dogs in the past and also to describe their dog's response. Animal behaviorist and University of Wisconsin professor Patricia McConnelldescribes the results on her blog: 

The most confrontational, and I would argue, aggressive, behaviors on the part of the owners resulted in the highest levels of aggressive responses from the dogs. 43% of dogs responded with aggression to being hit or kicked, 38% to having an owner grab their mouth and take out an object forcefully, 36% to having a muzzle put on (or attempted?), 29% to a "dominance down," 26% to a jowl or scruff shake.

"Violence begets violence, aggression begets aggression," McConnell added. Her conclusion is corroborated by additional studies. In 2008, Belgian scientists analyzed the performance of thirty-three dog-handling teams in the Belgian military. They found that the dogs classified as "low-performance" were punished more often than "high-performance" dogs. These sanctions included abrasive leash pulls and hanging the dogs by their collars. The following year,researchers from the U.K. detailed the findings of a study that examined dogs kept in shelters, discovering that attempts by humans to assert dominance over canines resulted in increased aggression.

"We should be teaching our dogs, rather than forcing and threatening them," McConnell urges.

This means trading in rolled-up newspapers for dog treats, roaring yells for happy praise, and hard smacks for soft pats. Positive punishment becomes positive reinforcement, where good behavior is rewarded rather than bad behavior being punished. Writing at LiveScience, Lynne Peeples describes a key study that compared the two methods, with positive reinforcement clearly coming out on top:

In February 2004, a paper in Animal Welfare by Elly Hiby and colleagues at the University of Bristol compared the relative effectiveness of positive and punitive methods for the first time. The dogs became more obedient the more they were trained using rewards. When they were punished, on the other hand, the only significant change was a corresponding rise in the number of bad behaviors.

Cesar Millan's "discipline" approach may produce seemingly miraculous results on television. But in the real world, it's neither effective nor substantiated. 

(Images: 1. Scary Black Dog via Shutterstock 2. Walking the Dog via Shutterstock)

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

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If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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