Updated: Apr 28
One of my favorite TV shows is the American version of The Office. I recently saw a re-run that got me thinking about the concept of late punishment.
In this particular episode of The Office, Dwight seeks revenge on Jim for throwing a snowball in his face. In usual Dwight fashion, he goes completely over board. Dwight retaliates by launching snowballs at Jim over the course of the day when he leasts expects it. He does this to the point that Jim becomes riddled with paranoia. So why is Jim so paranoid? Didn't he start it?
Jim is paranoid for 2 reasons:
1) He can't predict when the snowballs are going to happen.
2) There's no way for him to stop the snowballs from happening.
Both of these contribute to his feelings of helplessness, which turn into worry and fear.
We unknowingly cause our dogs the same distress when we attempt to punish them hours (or even minutes) after the fact. This is most commonly seen in house training or when dogs provide themselves entertainment by doing things like getting in the trash or ripping apart the throw pillows.
When using punishment, there is a narrow time frame in which the dog can connect action and consequence. When I say there is a narrow time frame, I'm talking seconds. Anything beyond that is ineffective and cruel. Please bear in mind that I am in no way advocating for the physical or verbal punishment of dogs, I am only saying that doing it hours after the fact is even worse because it is unpredictable to the dog.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate my point:
The newly adopted dog's owner leaves the house to run errands. The dog has not been properly house trained yet and pees on the carpet. This is reinforcing for the dog because she feels relief. Hours later, the owner returns home and finds the accident. The owner proceeds to yell at the dog and forcefully rub her nose in the urine.
For the dog, the preceding event was the owner's arrival home. Since fear is so adaptive, the owner is almost immediately viewed as unsafe and unpredictable. This creates a sense of helplessness and fear for the dog. Being unable to control what happens to us is cause for considerable stress.
Another dog is left home alone without being secured in a crate or "dog proof" room with appropriate chew toys. Keep in mind that if dogs aren't given something to do, they will create something to do. In this case it's trash excavation. The same scenario as above plays out with the subsequent shouting and physical punishment.
Sadly, many owners mistake the fear their dogs display as guilt. We've all seen the online videos of an owner coming home to a "guilty" looking dog. There's no doubt that that dog has been subject to punishment. It would be ideal if we could stop reinforcing this behavior in owners by no longer liking and sharing these videos. They are a detriment to the welfare of dogs.
The reason we interpret the dog's fearful expression as guilt is because it can look surprisingly similar to guilt in humans. Add in the fact that the dog has done something "wrong" from the human's perspective, and you have a recipe for "he KNOWS what he's done wrong and that's why he feels guilty."
At this time there is not even any conclusive evidence that dogs have the capacity to feel what we consider guilt. Therefore, to heap all those cognitive assumptions on them feels a bit unfair. To learn about what fear in dogs looks like, please visit iSpeakDog.
The next time you think about sharing that funny video of the "guilty" dog, please think about what that dog has had to endure in order to be displaying that "look" in the first place.
If you would like more information about the proper way to house train your dog, without the use of punishment, please read this wonderful article from Companion Animal Psychology.