Punishment as a Last Resort:

The world of anti-punishment ideology exists across a broad spectrum of our culture. It is codified in such sacred places as the rules for treatment of psychological disorders, education and now, dog training. Chief among the rules that harm people and animals is this concept: Punishment may only be used as a last resort. If the idea that this seemingly innocent and sensitive dictum could be harmful bothers you, consider translating this to a physical problem. Your dog has a compound fracture of its left hind leg. Your veterinarian says that he can only use surgery – an invasive procedure – as a last resort and must try less invasive treatments before he can jump to the concept of actually cutting flesh to fix the problem. If you love your dog you will find a different vet who will use a very invasive and aggressive solution immediately. Unknowingly, my hypothetical vet is simply following the logic of Rene Descartes, the famed French philosopher. Descartes believed that the mind was different than the body. That is why we currently live by two sets of rules, one for the body and one for the brain. These dual sets of ethics are not there because they help anyone, but because a dead philosopher’s evil catechism is so insidiously palatable that it sucks many people into its grasp. Why evil? Let me count the ways.

  1. Delaying or withholding treatment or knowledge of treatment known to be effective is blatantly unethical and cruel. Your child has been hit by a car. He has a compound fracture of his leg. The doctor puts him in a waiting room. To be most likely to heal the injury any logical thought suggests immediate surgery. What justification would there be delaying the surgery? What if the doctor knew that surgery was the best solution but didn’t tell you? Worse, what if the doctor scared you about surgery because of all the side-effects, such a pain and suffering that would result from the operation?
  2. Many medical and behavioral problems have a long history. They didn’t just pop up this morning. The “last resort” and “brain/body dichotomy” assumes that the creature was born yesterday. To propose that one cannot use punishment first implies that nothing else has ever occurred in the animal’s life that would constitute punishment. Hint: A dog running into a wall in play may be punished by the collision if it reduces the likelihood that the dog will run into walls in the future. Such an animal has already been punished in its life. It is highly likely that the punishment had a beneficial effect. That is what it is intended to do. The idea that we must start with using positive methods that have never been known to work before we can use that which is most effective simply perpetuates the problem. Whatever reinforcing contingencies may be maintaining or increasing the behavior must be stopped or the problem only gets worse. This points to a never mentioned fact. Unless an organism is sophisticated about how to respond to aversive events they may have an “over the top” reaction to even mild punishment. Logically that sophistication is best taught as a part of a balanced repertoire. That way your dog doesn’t go nuts when it is held firmly by a vet tech for an examination.
  3. Anti-punishment ideologues actively attack anyone who uses punishment, no matter how benign and plainly beneficial. They intentionally cause people to turn away from procedures that would solve the problem. This would be like trying to sell a fake cancer cure while telling people that chemo therapy, surgery and radiation therapy is lethal. Worse, they attack people even if punishment is used as a tiny component in a much larger behavior program of positive reinforcement.
  4. Why would a practitioner be limited to a single tool? The aforementioned solution for cancer might be chemical, nuclear or surgical or any combination of the three. If the goal is to create wellness there is no ethical or logical reason to make a procedure the exclusive cure or to arbitrarily eliminate any other treatment known to be effective. In most cases the use of punishment followed by reinforcement is the best solution. Sometimes the reverse sequence works better. The most powerful way to change behavior is to offer both consequences concurrently – if you jump up on people you get punished, if you don’t you get treats.
  5. Another catch in the modern rules of behavior modification is the concept that punishment may only be used for “serious” behavior problems. Here’s a hint – they are all serious. Seven to eight out of ten dogs do not see their first birthday. A simple, innocuous behavior like jumping on guests is likely to be lethal if unstopped. Positive reinforcement, by definition, does not stop behavior. Positive reinforcement increases behavior. If you can stop the unacceptable behavior in a timely fashion at a reasonable cost of time and money, the dog lives. If not, not.
  6. Most of the problems associated with dog ownership are the result of positive reinforcement. Dogs jump on people because they were picked up and cuddled as infants. Once created, it doesn’t go away just because you teach some other behavior. If that was true, you’d be unable to speak English just because you learned Spanish. Let me repeat that. Teaching an alternate behavior doesn’t work and it delays effective treatment.

A real expert on solving behavior problems has something that most so-called and self-proclaimed experts do not – knowledge based on experience. That creates a catalog of what works and what doesn’t. That leads to the creation of the most effective treatment plan. Whether that requires punishment followed by positive reinforcement, concurrent contingency dictated consequences or the use of only a single behavioral effect is the art of the ethical practitioner. Experience tells you what is most likely to work in a specific context – which is completely missing from myopic and artificial dichotomies like “last resorts.” Regardless of ideological rhetoric, hate speech and attempts to destroy a rational, logical but sometimes unpleasant solution for an animal, I am ethically bound to provide effective treatment. I am not bound by a rule that says I may only use one behavioral effect at a time. I am not bound by any rule that I must only offer “pleasant” experiences. The Hippocratic Oath demands, first, do no harm. Offering ineffective but “nice” treatment is automatically in violation of that rule. That is because it perpetuates the problem and allows it to get worse while ineffective methods are tried, mindlessly. In the real world it also means that the pet owner is saddled with needless costs of time and money that eventually drains their resources. In the end they will reluctantly give the animal up to that 80% chance of dying as the real “last resort.”

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