People talk to their pets every day: praise when they are good, reassurance when they are confused, and affection when they cuddle. We also speak to animals when they misbehave. “Why did you do that?” someone could ask their dog. Or we can scold the cat: “Don’t touch that!” – as we move a family heirloom around the room.
But is it ever appropriate to punish or scold an animal?
When people talk about “punishment,” it implies more than a loss of privilege. The term suggests that a person is asked to learn a lesson after breaking a rule that he can understand. But an animal’s understanding is different from a human’s, which raises questions about what lessons they can learn and what, if any, reprimands of animals are ethical.
These issues relate to what researchers know about the cognition of different animals. But they also go further by asking questions about what kind of moral status animals have and how people who interact with animals should train them.
As an ethical theorist, I have explored these and related questions, including with some of my colleagues in psychology and anthropology. I would argue that it is important to distinguish three types of learning: conditioning, instruction and teaching.
One type of learning, called “classical conditioning,” was popularized by psychologist Ivan Pavlov just after the turn of the century. By repeatedly ringing a bell while presenting food, Pavlov caused dogs to salivate just from the bell. Such learning comes merely from associating two types of stimuli: in this case, a sound and a snack.
When scientists talk about punishment, they normally mean “operant conditioning,” which was popularized soon after by psychologists Edward Thorndike and BF Skinner. In operant conditioning, positive or pleasant stimuli are used to reinforce desired behavior, and negative or painful stimuli are used to deter undesirable behavior. For example, we can give a dog a treat to reward him for obeying a sit command.