Are We Punishing Our Dogs With Rewards?



“Between the carrot and the stick there is usually a jack-ass.” ~ Alfie Kohn

In the early 1960’s, two graduate students researching independently on the benefits of rewards as motivators arrived at results that were not expected. Louise Brightwell Miller (University of Kansas) discovered that when 9 year-old boys were paid to solve a simple identification test (differences in faces), they performed worse than the 9 year old-boys who were asked to do it for free. Sam Gluckberg (NYU) got the same result with adults trying to solve a puzzle known as the “Candle Problem”.

It is generally agreed on by most professionals that punishment is not a strong motivator. But what about rewards? Are they just another side of the same coin?

In his book, “Punished By Rewards”, Dr. Alfie Kohn explains: “When you do something for a reward you tend to become less interested in what you’re doing. It comes to seem like a chore, something you have to get through in order to pick up the dollar or the A or the extra dessert.”

The science of motivation is headed toward this direction, with theories like the Self Determination Theory (Deci, Ryan) that emphasizes intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is what Skinnerian, reward-based behavior modification focuses on with our dogs. The message is simple: “Do this and you’ll get that.” If you Sit, you’ll get a treat. If you Come, you’ll get a toy, etc. The motivation is externally focused, and even with all the different reinforcement schedules, once the reinforcer is gone, so is the behavior.

Rewards can also be perceived as a form of punishment. When our dogs don’t perform as they should, the reward is withheld. That is no different than punishment. It’s like telling a child they will get an ice cream if the are quiet in the car, and for one moment they slip up – they’ve lost the reward. Does the child feel that they lost a reward or do they feel punished? I think we all have experienced this ourselves. The unfulfilled expectation of a reward is punishment, no matter how the behaviorists try to spin it.

Extrinsic rewards may be, and often are, counter productive for the very reason that they originate outside, and are thus dependent for their existence on the external environment. When a reward is not forth coming, as is the case with many extrinsic rewards after a while, not only does the reward stop, but possibly the lack of reward is experienced as a kind of punishment, causing the formation of conjectures that learning will be accompanied by or followed by this punishment. There is now considerable evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation not only motivates us better than contrived or extrinsic contingencies, but is actually must be central in any  real motivation affecting us positively.”
Edward Deci

By contrast, there is intrinsic motivation. This means doing things for their own sake, and not with the expectation of what “goody” will be waiting for them at the end. This allows the dog’s natural desires to determine their behavior and not impose it artificially from the outside. It is really the difference between having faith that your dog will be a good friend, versus the fear that your dog, unless you use the carrot and stick, will run amok.

The reason we should have faith in our dogs is steeped in evolutionary theory. First, the consensus of how dogs evolved is growing that dogs didn’t hang around human settlements scavenging their refuse piles, and that we “domesticated” a few puppies and made them less wild, some claim. (It’s very doubtful that early humans even had these enormous refuse piles, we were very skilled at utilizing every bit of food and every resource. Nothing went to waste). It is now thought that we “partnered” with wolves/dogs to each others benefit. We learned from each other how to hunt and even care for our families. In other words, we helped each other out because we wanted to (intrinsically), not to get some extrinsic reward. (Schleidt, Shalter).

Another idea from evolution is whats known as Reciprocal Altruism, where one organism does something for another for the good of the whole. (Trivers). While this is usually thought of as in intra-species phenomenon, there are anecdotal examples of how humans and dogs did this for each other. (Pierotti & Fogg).

With these ideas in mind, it should be clear that the constant manipulation of our dogs may not be as necessary as many dog behavior and training “professionals” would lead you to believe.

One final note: The over-use of rewards can warp our relationships with our dogs. It puts us in a vertical relationship, where we are always sitting in judgement above our dogs. Rewards keep our dogs dependent on how we feel in order to have their needs met, such as food and acceptance. That’s not friendship, that’s ownership.

Therefore, it may be useful for us think of helping each other be good friends rather than “training”. This means learning to trust each other, respect each other and accept each other. This is a relationship between equals, a horizontal relationship. Our desire to make each other happy will be intrinsic, not based on an extrinsic “goody”. That type of connection with our dogs is the only reward each of us ever needs.

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Author: Path of Friendship™

Corey Cohen is an animal behaviorist, mindfulness and emotional intelligence instructor with over 33 years of helping people connect to their dogs on a deeper level. His unique Mindfulness-Based Animal Behavior Therapy™ and his Path of Friendship™ programs are inspiring alternatives to standard dog training. His mindfulness seminars for individuals, universities, wellness centers, and top corporations has helped reduce stress and anxiety and given people a fresh perspective on life. He is the owner of A New Leash on Life Animal Behavior Services in Northeastern PA and Northern NJ. He’s also the owner of Awakenings Meditation in Northeastern PA.

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