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.