On the value of saying Thank-You

The other day I was behind this woman in line at Walmart. She had a little 3 yr old boy with her who was working quite hard to get her attention. And it was working although it was mostly her saying “Now quit that,” and “Stop it,” and “Don’t make me have to whoop you.” It seemed obvious to ME watching this transpire that this Mom had no idea how to change her son’s behavior.

I read a book, years ago, called Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor. One might erroneously think this is a book about dog training. But, it is really about the bigger picture of how reinforcement and punishment work and why reinforcement is always the preferred solution for getting what you want. And, not just from animals. Humans are ‘animals’ as well so all this stuff applies. Clearly the lady at Walmart had not read the book or she would have had some other ideas.

I had another experience recently which got me thinking about punishment. Punishment, by definition is used to decrease the frequency of a behavior in the future. The lady at Walmart used the threat of whooping to try to get the kid to be still. But it didn’t work. The challenge when dealing with people (and animals too) is determining the motivation for certain behaviors. If the kid wants attention and gets it (even though Mother is annoyed) from his point of view, there is no problem. Mom would have to ACTUALLY beat the boy right then and maybe he might ‘quit’ offering those annoying behaviors, but there would be a lot of fall out to deal with. Punishment just isn’t the best solution. OTOH if Mom had put some thought into developing acceptable ways to attract attention then both she and the boy might be having a more pleasant trip to the store. The problem is reinforcing desired behaviors requires that we think ahead to how our actions affect others.

Interestingly, punishment can actually be quite effective in some cases but usually in ways we don’t want! A lot of times people (because they haven’t read Karen’s book?) people are completely oblivious to the ways in which they punish others–for behavior that would reasonably be considered DESIRABLE! For example, let’s say you give someone a small thoughtful gift. It is just a way to say, I’m thinking of you and I care, nothing big or fancy. It might even just be passing on some information which might be of use to that person because you want them to be successful. And the person’s response is, “hmm well, that’s not really anything I can use.” How likely would you be to repeat that behavior (reaching out to that person)? Probably not too often if you feel your efforts are not welcomed. The behavior has just been punished.

So anyway, I just got to thinking how -easy- it is to squash (punish) another’s interest in us with a misplaced word or action on our part. No matter what we can always HONESTLY say, “I appreciate the thought”. It is those small responses to the little things that add up over time to better relationships — with people AND horses.


  1. Great post, Sharon! (thank you for sharing it with us!)

    I’ve been taking a positive parenting class this past semester—it’s so interesting looking at parenting from a behavior perspective.

    Many of a child’s behaviors are often attention-seeking behaviors. And when parents scold, lecture or threaten, they’re just attending to that behavior and perpetuating it…. Part of the issue is like you said, that to use positive reinforcement, you have to plan and be more proactive, attempts at using punishment tend to be more reactive.

    Many children live in environments with very low levels of positive reinforcement. And like you said towards the end, we often sadly and inadvertently punish good behavior. The more I’m looking for this, the more I see it. For instance, if I share a piece of information with someone, and they immediately jump in with something negative or critical, I’m much less likely to bring up that subject with that person again in the future. Even if I know they were just trying to offer helpful advice.

    One thing our book discussed in the class I took was how parents are always looking for “teaching moments.” And if I a kid knows everything they share with their parents is going to turn into a lecture or lesson….it’s no wonder kids are hesitant to talk to their parents.

    I like that the title of this post is “the value of saying thank you.” The clicker is a teaching tool, but as Alexandra Kurland says, it also can be used to say thank you for good behavior that the horse already “should” know how to do. It’s fun to tell our horses when they’ve done good!

    Our society is largely driven by aversive control, punishment, negative reinforcement. The shift towards trying to be more positive and trying to train using positives is huge! I think it is very telling of the type of contingencies we are use to living under that one of the first questions people usually ask about the clicker is: “But will I always have to carry around treats?” or “When can I start fading out the clicker/treats?” Essentially, how fast can I get rid of the positive reinforcement.


  2. Mary,
    Thank you for your comments! I so appreciate that people are actually reading and taking the time to comment. 🙂

    To your last remark about how people want to know when they can fade out rewards… I always thought that odd. It is ok to assume that we’ll have to continue to carry out punishments “as needed” … but not rewards?? Hmmmm…

    You just made me think of another topic. Thanks!