The effect of bad experiences

Many reward-based dog trainers are familiar with Murray Sidman’s writings about punishment and its fallout. One impact, which I have been teaching people about for many years, is the fact that punishment (or bad experiences as a whole) generalise more easily than new behaviour learned by means of positive reinforcement. In particular, punishment generalises to the location where it occurred. I think I must have read this in a Psychology text book over 20 years ago, and I don’t have the reference. Think of the implications for dog training. If a dog training school uses correction or aversive methods, the corrections can generalise to the environment – namely, the training grounds. What impact do you think this would have on the dog’s motivation and learning ability?

Now there is recent scientific research that explains this effect, which has been known from experience for a long time.

Clearly in our evolutionary past, generalising a bad experience to the location where it occurred would have had survival value. You might need many experiences to learn where to find food, and to generalise that knowledge. (We know that dogs need repeated experiences to generalise a behaviour learned from positive reinforcement – take Ian Dunbar’s “does your dog know what sit means?” exercise). But if a predator jumps out from behind a fruit tree where you are gathering food – on one occasion – you would be well advised to learn from that one experience, and avoid that place in future.

If it turns out that the predator does not normally lurk there, it may take many experiences of being safe before you “undo” the memory of danger. This is why we need to give our dogs repeated safe exposures to something that they are frightened of and want to avoid. There is a good reason to err on the side of safety.


About transformational1

I have many interests and I have had a varied career. I am a semi-retired professional dog trainer, specialising in the use of positive reinforcement. I do some consultations, I run instructor workshops and I am setting up a Dogs and Psychotherapy Research Project. I have a law degree from Melbourne University (but have never practiced) and I am passionate about Human Rights. My first degree was in Sociology. I worked as a social researcher on issues such as low income housing, women's refuges and women in the workforce. I live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and I have a German Shepherd called Chance.
This entry was posted in Behaviour problems, Dog training, dogs' memory, Fear and nervousness, food rewards, Learning theory, Training concepts, Training theories and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The effect of bad experiences

  1. John says:

    PERSONAL – Attention: Kaye Hargreaves, G’day, Kaye. Getting the continuation of my story on the go again, hope to finish it this weekend – rather than following the herd and AFL fever, I reckon. Will double space this time so will be cleaner copy than the last mess I submitted – [quite ashamed of that!]. Ideally, if this computer will let me recover the copy again, I’ll edit it first before printing then try to send it across electronically instead. Keep everything crossed in anticipation!! [You’re setting me a cracking pace thesedays with all your inspirationsl e-mails – makes me quite ashamed} Cheers and wags, JohnanMolls XX


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