There have been some very important conversations about punishment this week in my blog reader. I’ve been trying to write an eloquent response, like Pamela and Lara did, but instead I’m flailing, struggling to say something that is further from the science and closer to the heart.
I have a dog who cannot be punished without long-term behavioral repercussions. Silas is a sweet, fragile guy, with an excellent memory. I am extremely careful to avoid even accidental punishments, like praising him too loudly.
That is, I spend considerable time, energy, and sometimes even money, making sure that the world is the least aversive it can possibly be for him. I do this because I want him to improve. I also do it because if his behavior deteriorates his life will be at risk.
Silas is obviously an extreme case, but I wouldn’t change my basic philosophy even for a different, more robust dog.
Because here’s what I’ve learned, from treating my sensitive dog as sympathetically and gently as I possibly can:
By “love,” I don’t mean affection. Lots of dogs adore people who treat them quite badly, and most of those same people feel quite warmly toward their dogs.
I mean the big, challenging, messy stuff. I mean feeling sad and happy, hopeless and excited, exhausted and exhilarated, on behalf of a creature who quite possibly has no idea what most of those feelings even are. I mean putting someone else first, finding that difficult, having to do it anyway, and coming out the other side into a joy like no other, and then doing it again, and again, and again.
It is a tremendous reward, with a tremendous price.
You cannot get to that kind love by a shortcut (like following the advice of well-intentioned bloggers), or by being “the boss,” or by “just doing what needs to be done,” or by “knowing what’s best.”
Not every soul has identical needs, which means that compassion doesn’t always look exactly the same. It is, however, the only path to real love.