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The carrot or the stick?

Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

‘The carrot or the stick’ is an idiom about reward and punishment. It originates from the cart driver dangling a carrot in front of a mule while holding a stick. The animal walks forward to eat the carrot thus avoiding the stick. In this example the same behaviour outcome has been achieved – walking forward – using two different methods – positive reinforcement (the carrot) and punishment (the stick). But would the mule move without the temptation of the carrot to avoid the stick? Quite probably if he had learned to avoid the stick. But what effects does ‘the stick’ have on learning and behaviour?

Punishment always has a fall out. Punishment can achieve the desired behaviour, but at a cost. Look beyond the punishment and its wider implications become apparent. For instance, if a dog is barking through separation anxiety when alone, ‘the stick’ option may be to use an anti-bark collar that sprays an unpleasant citronella scent or blasts air in the dog’s face. The barking ceases; however a few months later the same dog develops an eczema ‘hot spot’ because the anxiety is still present. Barking was the dog’s coping mechanism and the underlying stress came out elsewhere. Punishment doesn’t address the reason for the unwanted behaviour.

‘The carrot’ option teaches the dog to enjoy his own company. He needs emotional support and coping skills to reduce distress when home alone. Address the underlying anxiety positively by leaving him with appropriate activities and calming tools (e.g. Pet Remedy plug-in) when alone.

Dogs do not understand our morals. When telling dogs off, owners frequently report that their dog, “Knew he was in the wrong because he looked sorry,” which assumes he understood his misdemeanour. While he may look pitiful he is more likely to be responding to an angry tone of voice and facial expression rather than understanding right from wrong. A puppy that is reprimanded for urinating on the carpet is just as likely to learn that he shouldn’t relieve himself in his owner’s presence as understand the cause of the irritation.

Punishment is more likely to spoil your relationship with your dog than solve behaviour problems. Instead, use treats to reward the behaviours you want, largely ignoring those you don’t. Always ask, “What do I want my dog to do instead?” and find an alternative activity.