Punishment: Pitfalls and Perils

You know how sometimes people laugh at inappropriate times? You her of people who laugh at funerals or when getting bad news.  This happens to me on the rare occasions my kids scream.  I’m not talking the normal hootin’ and hollerin’ that young boys are prone to. I’m talking primal screams of sheer terror.  This is not an ideal time to stifle a snicker.

Granted, so far my kids have only experienced scream inducing scenarios that are not particularly traumatic in the grand scheme of things.  Once there was a raccoon on the back porch of our beach house and the kids were convinced it was going to come into the house and kill us all.  (My children are terribly suburban and nature-averse).  Another time Perry shrieked in horror because there was a teeny tiny baby gecko in their bathroom.  I could barely catch it because I was trying so hard to smother the laugh.

I feel terrible because the kids are actually scared, but a 1″ gecko? Really?

Pandemonium broke out in my house around 6:45 AM today. Snicker inducing shrieks and all, but this time it was not related to any wild animals in the house.

First of all, I’ll mention that I’m still a miserable failure at potty training the puppy.  I have told the kids to keep an eye out for her pooping in the house so we can startle her in the act and try to make her averse to indoor defecation.  By startling I implied clapping of the hands, or a sharp “no”, etcetera to disrupt the inappropriate defecation.

This morning, Nixon went to her customary poo location in the dining room.  Only this time the kids saw her headed that way and when she assumed the position, Perry unleashed this bloodcurdling screech of horror movie proportions.  We’re talking full on scream. Like Jamie Lee Curtis’ mom in “Psycho”. Like the scream I produce when I happen upon a snake out in the wild.

Puppy was startled, to say the least.

Perry’s outburst definitely disrupted Nixon’s fecal experience, although one nugget was dropped in the dining room. (Fecus interruptus?)   Poor dog.  I was afraid she would be so traumatized that she would refuse to poop altogether, but we whisked her away and she finished her business to much praise and adulation outside, in the proper place.

So according to Dr. Sophia Yin, animal behaviorist extraordinaire in her lecture on punishment at the Central Veterinary Conference,”The punishment needs to take place while the animal is performing the undesirable behavior“.  “even a delay of 2 seconds is significantly less effective than punishment that occurs while the animal is performing the undesirable behavior”.

OK, at least this time… timing good: check.

I’ll admit we’ve broken the timing rule .  It’s hard to just ignore a fresh pile of poop on your nice hardwood floor, so sometimes she gets punished more than two seconds after the incident.  It is pretty ineffective for teaching Nixon, but at least makes us feel a little better.  I guess we follow a sort of “if the feces is warm, punish”, time frame.

We have trouble with some of Dr. Yin’s other rules of punishment:

Punishment can strengthen undesirable behavior, if not consistent“.   We don’t catch her in the act every time, so she’s on a “variable schedule of punishment”.  This means that all those other times she poops in the house without getting caught, she’s rewarded with a happy, private, climate controlled fecal occurrence.  This can overshadow the occasional negative experience.  It’s like feces gambling.  You win some, you lose some.  However the thrill of victory overshadows the agony of defeat.

Punishment must be strong enough to be effective“.  I guess time will tell if Perry’s screech was strong enough punishment for Nixon.  I fear we have probably just accomplished making her averse to defecating in the dining room when the kids are there.  Empty dining room may remain A-OK.

Just for your information, Dr. Yin’s other concerns about punishment are:

Punishment can cause aggression” confrontational techniques like hitting, kicking, “alpha rolls”, staring the dog down, etc. frequently can elicit aggressive responses from the dog.  This can be redirected toward inanimate objects as well as other animals, including humans.

Punishment can lead to a poor association and a poor bond“.” When punished, the pet associates the person delivering the punishment with unpleasant events and the bond between them may weaken”.  Furthermore, people who punish their pets all the time become angry and resentful of their pet.  “The proper way to use an aversive is to dole it out with no emotion and preferably use some remote control aversive so it can be independent of any association with you.” . I have to admit, it sure is hard to keep emotion out of the equation when you are dealing with e. coli laden feces in your home. Furthermore, I am of Hispanic descent and we tend to have strong emotional responses to situations.

We’re still working on it.  I think we have had about 3 or 4 accidents in the house this week.  Considering she poops three times a day, that means she’s pooped outside, what, 11 times? So that’s good.

Our problem is multifactorial.  The above mentioned punishment inconsistencies aren’t helping. She also has the attention span of an infant gnat.  She may go out with the intention of urinating and defecating like a champ, but there is an ocean of rabbit poop out there to be eaten, bugs to chase, neighbor dogs to bark at, scary noises to run from and the like.  We’ve taken to crating her when she goes back inside if she doesn’t excrete the proper substances in a timely manner. Then we take her out again until she goes.

I’m finishing this blog a couple of days after I started writing it.  I am happy to (cautiously) admit, that Nixon hasn’t had a bowel movement in the house (that I have found) in 48 hours.  She did urinate right in front of me about an hour ago, and I shouted at her, stopped the behavior and moved her to a desirable potty location (outside) where she successfully completed the proper act.  For this she was subsequently rewarded. (Every outdoor excretion is a happy, happy moment!)

I think we’re making headway, I’ll keep you posted.


One thought on “Punishment: Pitfalls and Perils

  1. I have to admit that your post made me laugh out loud. This is definitely one of those times I’m very happy to be a cat-person. Plus, I’ve made a mental note that if I ever get the hankering for a dog, it will most likely be an adult that’s already house trained.

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