Why Punishment Fails in Effective Dog Training

When I started working in the veterinary field, I was enlightened as to the writing of a popular veterinary behaviorist in regards to puppy rearing and training, along with several tips to keep in mind when working with adult dogs.

One of these writings outlines some common scenarios in which dog owners use “punishment,” and why the “punishment” fails.

I touch on a few of these scenarios on my previous blog, Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance part III, when I go over when corrections simply have no effect, or in fact make the problem worse:

…[Y]ou are surprised by the sudden presence of a strange dog, and now yours is out at the end of his leash barking madly, and when you DO try to correct appropriately, they mean absolutely nothing to your dog. It’s as if he can’t even feel them, and this is when many people throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Correcting him doesn’t work.” Or, if you get the right dog, he feels the corrections, turns around and redirects onto YOU, a situation again which causes people to throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Corrections only made him more aggressive and now the problem is worse.

The problem with punishment as described here (even though the word “correction” is used) is that it relies on the owner to react to the dog, rather than be pro-active and use a startling correction to redirect the dog’s focus when concentration is starting to be lost: “Hey, you need to pay attention to me, because you’re going to miss something important and I’d rather set you up for success so that you can see it—but you have to be paying attention first. I’m doing all I can to motivate you to do the right thing, you’ve been rewarded in the past so you know what’s right, and now it’s time for you to learn that you need to do the right thing regardless of the situation.”

In the scenario above, you would have been further ahead to issue a correction as soon as the dog focused and locked onto the strange dog, allowing for a greater chance of success for the dog to refocus on YOU.

However, the two situations used as examples by this well-known, oft-quoted veterinary behaviorist have nothing to do with a lunging dog on the end of a leash. With that said, I can certainly say that these situations do hold a lesson or two, though not in the way the author intends.

The first example of how punishment can rightfully fail is when the owner catches the dog on the couch, yells at it and threatens it with a rolled-up newspaper, since the dog is obviously not allowed on the furniture.

Of course punishment will fail in this respect. Let’s postulate why this might be so:

  • The owner is not supervising the dog so that she could prevent the dog from getting onto the couch in the first place
  • The owner is using the negative stimulus far too long after the dog climbs onto the furniture, and now the dog doesn’t know why it’s under attack by its owner
  • The owner is yelling, which is generally a pretty good way of showing that she has no control of her emotions and to which most dogs respond with fear, whose actions and body language owners might mistake for “guilt”
  • The owner has failed to properly teach the dog to stay off furniture by giving it a chance to get up there and then immediately experience an aversive stimulus (which, remember, is NOT always a collar correction depending on the dog!)
  • The owner failed to confine the dog properly so that it could not get up on the furniture while unsupervised, leading to a success and the likelihood that the behavior will continue
  • The owner did not properly teach the dog to lay in its own place, either on a bed, a place mat or simply at the foot of the couch so that it can be with its owner, but not on the furniture
  • The owner has previously allowed the dog on the furniture, but has had a change of heart and doesn’t understand how to properly teach the dog that the furniture is now off-limits in a conducive manner

But, that’s funny.

All of these reasons begin with “The owner.”

Yet “punishment” is at fault here. “Punishment” that is administered in such a fashion that guarantees the dog will most likely not learn the lesson at hand, will create fear, and possibly even lead to a defensive aggression issue (which might then be interpreted by the owner as “dominance”–subject matter for another entry on another day!).

Yes, “punishment” fails here when done in this regard and in this context. I am in complete agreement with this veterinary behaviorist.

A better alternative to the couch

The next example involves a dog that greets people by jumping on them. Obviously, this behavior is unacceptable, so its owners “punish” the dog by kneeing or kicking it in the chest each time it jumps on them.

If this is the only course of action they take in regards to the issue, it will most likely fail. Let’s postulate why:

  • The owners are not teaching the dog an alternative behavior that results in praise (which, although not the be-all end-all of stopping a dog from jumping, certainly is a step in the right direction)
  • The owners are completely mis-using the knee-in-the-chest concept, resulting in kicks to the dog’s chest rather than bumps, or worse, actions that send the dog flying tail-over-teacups for 5 feet, and overall exhibiting bad timing and/or inconsistency
  • The owners are not training the dog in obedience, choosing only to fix this one behavior because they perceive that he’s an otherwise “good dog” except for this one problem
  • The owners are not crating the dog when they leave, creating a logjam at the door as they attempt to go into the house and the dog attempts to come out to see them; the dog jumps on them, and the excitement level of the entire situation is entirely not conducive to behavior modification
  • The owners have not curbed jumping behavior if they bought the dog as a puppy, and what was now “cute” is now a very large annoyance, and they are frustrated at the dog’s “inability” to learn to not jump, even after months or years of such treatment

Yet again, the problem here is the “punishment,” despite the fact that this list of reasons closely resembles our previous one in that all of them start with “The owner.” I am, for the most part in this particular situation, in agreement with this veterinary behaviorist.

So, despite the fact that I am in agreement over her assessment of the use of “punishment” in these scenarios, trainers such as myself and others (many of whom are lacking in the Fancy Higher Education Letters After Our Names Having To Do With Animal Behavior department) are still vilified and thrown under the bus. Why? It all has to do with these:

“But you aren’t one of those CRUEL trainers, are you?”

The presentation of these two issues is supposed to be enough for the veterinary behaviorist in question to convince people that the use of “punishment” in any and all training scenarios is a bad idea. Surprisingly, I find myself in partial agreement with her—with the caveat that I try to limit my use of how often I invoke the broad-paintbrush argument. Of course, punishment should be limited. What I am perfectly fine applying to dogs is an appropriate, properly-timed consequence, provided it is done in a way that the dog understands what it did wrong and how to NOT do wrong again in the future.

This is the general idea of what people have in mind when it comes to making inappropriate behaviors go away: the act of the “punishment.”

Let’s make the dog pay for his transgressions. Let us show him the error of his ways. Let us just wait for him to make one little mistake, and then we’ll blast him so hard he won’t know which end is up.

This is the mindset of a frustrated owner at the end of her rope. This is the owner who, after being told time and again from trainer after trainer that she must NEVER say “No” to her dog, never give it a negative consequence for its actions other than removing incentives, using a “non-reward marker,” managing the environment to high heaven, or bringing out the dreaded water bottle/penny can/air horn/compressed air/etc, resorts to something that feels like an appropriate (if verboten) response to an undesired behavior. In short, instinctive drift.

This is why people buy “shock collars” from the store with the intent on using them as the final, last resort to fry some sense into a dog that has otherwise resisted all remedial attempts (short of those that include working under the tutelage of a competent results-based trainer to solve the problem through effective training).

This is why MOST punishment fails and MOST humane correction works. For the MOST part, the former is reactive and latter is proactive.

Now, does this mean that ALL examples of punishment and correction apply across all situations? Of course not. There are times when dogs resist attempts at correction to startle or redirect them, just as there are times when even the most skilled trainers must react to something that, possibly, has escalated so quickly that the dog must be brought back under control before continuing the lesson.

The examples are endless. My ability to come up with all of them to list here is limited.

The problem is that anytime someone judges my training based on one situation, they are sorely misguided. They do not know my dog. They don’t know the lesson at hand, nor the goal in mind. They do not know the particular issues I am working through at the moment, nor are they most likely aware of the multitudes of techniques I COULD be using to work through them OR why I picked this particular one.

Sometimes it might involve leash pressure or a correction on a training collar, which could be construed as “punishment” in the right scenario by the right person when seen at the right time. And when a lot of my training is done in public places and seen in glimpses by people driving by, of course one moment can be taken out of context. You see it all the time on dog-related sites, as people strive to pick apart a 30-second video, or even worse, a single photograph that represents a moment in time, and the details of which are known to absolutely NO ONE.

Yet this is a dog on which I receive regular compliments on how well-behaved she is out in ANY situation out in public, short of gunfire or fireworks.

Has she been “punished”? Sure. The times were few and far between, but of all that come to mind, they bear one distinguishing characteristic: they all were my fault. Perhaps it was a concept I failed to proof properly, or a crime of opportunity. Whatever they were, I reacted to the situation and afterwards, made it my responsibility to properly teach my dog better so that such concepts would not be questioned in the future, and such opportunities that invite crimes would clearly be a Poor Life Decision on the part of the dog.

Our relationship has not suffered because of this, despite the words of not only the aforementioned veterinary behaviorist, but also others and those who dub themselves “trainers” who would not have given my dog a chance to learn how to act around other dogs in a secure, controlled environment.

But, as with everything else, that’s just my take on it.