People sometimes ask me how to punish or discipline a dog or puppy.
Yet many people nowadays use training techniques that do not involve punishing their Labradors, and some believe that no-one should be allowed to punish a dog.
Punishment in dog training is actually on the decline.
And not everyone agrees that this is a good thing.
Today we’re going to look at the benefits and disadvantages of punishing dogs, and to ask if training without punishment can ever really work.
The use and misuse of the word punishment as it applies to dog training lies at the heart of much disagreement between dog trainers and dog owners.
So before we talk in any detail about punishment, and the difference between punishment and reward based dog training methods, let’s take a moment to define what we mean by punishment.
In human terms punishment is defined as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.”
But it doesn’t really make sense to inflict ‘retribution’ on dogs. After all, it is neither fair nor productive to impose a penalty on someone that is not capable of anticipating the consequences of his actions.
Yet it is this ‘social’ or legal definition of punishment that many of us have in mind when we think about dogs and dog training.
Another common definition of punishment is cruel or harsh treatment of dogs.
This makes talking about punishment very confusing as each of us will have different opinions on what is or is not cruel or harsh.
Some will think smacking a dog’s bottom is an act of cruelty. Others will think it a mild and harmless correction.
The best definition of punishment for dog training purposes is a behavioural one. After all, dog training is about changing behaviour. And the way dogs behave is governed by the laws of behavioural science.
What is punishment in dog training
Punishment in behavioural terms is something that diminishes behaviour. That is how we define it.
If something you do, makes your dog less likely in the future to do something he previously enjoyed.
Then whatever you did, was a punishment for your dog.
If your Labrador is enjoying a particular activity – climbing on the sofa for example – and you do something to your dog right now, in the present, that decreases the chances of him climbing on the sofa in the future.
What you did was a punishment.
“But supposing I call my dog away from the sofa and give him a piece of cheese?” you say “That wasn’t a punishment was it?”
You are quite right, calling your dog and giving him some cheese wasn’t a punishment, and it won’t (by itself) decrease the chance of your dog climbing on the sofa again. In fact , he might learn to climb on the sofa more often in the hopes that you’ll call him off it and give him some cheese afterwards.
There is nothing wrong with calling your dog and giving him some cheese by the way, in fact, for today, it is probably the best strategy. And it can form part of a training plan. But you then need to plan how you are going to prevent your dog climbing on the sofa in the future, either through training or management or a combination of both.
Examples of punishment used on dogs
Punishment is anything that diminishes behaviour. There are lots of things that dogs do that we don’t like. And there are lots of different ways that people have devised to punish dogs, in order to diminish unwanted behaviours
In our sofa example, the owner of the dog might scold the dog angrily “Grrr you BAD dog” or even smack him. Or she might squirt him with some water, or shake a rattle bottle at him.
Here are some more examples
- A squirt of compressed air (aerosol pet corrector)
- Electric shocks (e-collars)
- Neck compression (choke chains)
- Neck pain (prong collars)
- Verbal intimidation (angry voice, shouting, growling, tssst noise)
- Postural intimidation (aggressive or threatening posture, staring)
- Training discs
- Pokes or jabs
- Kicks and foot taps
As you can see, not all of these examples involve pain or even any kind of physical contact with the dog.
They are still potentially forms of punishment. I say potentially, because different dogs react differently to the things people do to them or around them.
Returning to the dog snoozing on the sofa, there are plenty of dogs who will be most upset by one or all of these above actions on the part of their owner and best friend. But there are also plenty who will happily sleep through all but the most aggressive onslaught.
The dog determines what is punishment
It isn’t what I think is mean, or what you think is cruel that counts. You and I have no say in what is a punishment for YOUR dog. Only he can determine that.
Because for something to be a punisher, the dog has to find it aversive. In other words it has to be something he fears or dislikes sufficiently for him to work to avoid it.
This is a good thing in a way because it puts all the arguments about what constitutes a punishment firmly to bed.
Let’s have some examples of how different dogs are
Let’s say you are trying to load the dishwasher after supper. Your dog is intent on making sure the plates are thoroughly licked, and you don’t want him to do this.
If you smack your dog and he carries on licking those plates, smacking was not a punishment for him.
If on the other hand you say “Tshsst” to your dog and he slinks into his bed, you just punished him. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t touch him or harm him, if he abandoned what he was doing to avoid the sound “Tshsst” you still punished him
Another example. Let’s say your dog is tormenting your cat, chasing him, poking him etc, and your cat is getting fed up.
If you pick up your dog by the scruff of his neck and hold him firmly while saying Grrrr BAD dog and if you then put the dog down and he carries on tormenting your cat. That scruffing was not a punishment for your dog.
But if you say Ah-Ah! to your dog when he places his feet on the kitchen table, and if he immediately stops what he was doing and pretends to be counting floor tiles, you either just punished him or told him that a punishment was just about to come. We’ll look at that next
The use of punishment markers or predictors
Many people train their dogs to recognise certain sounds as punishment markers. For example, they may say “Ah-ah” to their young dog and if he does not comply or break off what he was doing, they then apply some kind of punishment, be it exclusion, a scolding, or whatever.
If consistently used in this way “Ah-ah” becomes a punishment marker
Dogs that don’t find Tsst aversive in itself, may still work to avoid the sound Tsst if it has become a punishment marker for that dog.
What about corrections?
People often say that they are ‘correcting’ their dog, not punishing him. I have used this term myself.
The word ‘correction’ is actually a euphemism for ‘mild punishment’. It often makes us feel better to think we are ‘correcting’ the dog rather than punishing him.
It isn’t a very helpful word if you eventually want to progress to force-free training as it allows us to avoid recognising that we are still using punishment on our dogs.
Punishment is not defined by how much it hurts
So, punishment in dog training is not about the degree of force involved. Nor is it about the amount of harm involved – harming and harsh treatment are acts of cruelty. Punishment is not necessarily cruel. Though of course it can be.
But is punishment helpful to dog trainers? Do we really need to use punishment, even mild punishment, in order to have a well behaved dog?
At one time, the answer from me and from most dog trainers worldwide, would have been a resounding yes.
But there has been a massive change in dog training principles and practises over the last few years, and nowadays, many trainers would answer a resounding no. Let’s look at the arguments from both sides.
Benefits of training with punishment
There are benefits to some dog trainers in using punishment in dog training. It is tempting for me to say that there are not, but there are. And we need to address these when deciding how to train our dogs.
Most professional dog trainers – especially those over forty years old, learned to train dogs using traditional and often quite punitive methods. This then is their comfort zone.
They feel at home with what they know, and learning a whole new skill is really quite a big deal for them. For them, the benefit of punishment is that they know how it works, and can get results from it without spending time learning something new.
There are some aspects of proofing in dog training that can sometimes be achieved more quickly using traditional methods.
Proofing is where we teach dogs to respond to our voice or whistle in a wide variety of different circumstances.
Some of the more unusual situations where we want dogs to obey us are more complicated or involved to set up in a force-free manner. Especially with a dog that has no previous experience of force-free training
The celebrity effect is not a benefit of punitive training, but it is a reason that training with punishment still holds an appeal for many dog owners.
It is possible to achieve apparently dramatic training effects in the short term using fear and intimidation. This is because frightened dogs tend to ‘shut down’ and do nothing.
This makes brilliant television. In the space of thirty minutes or an hour, you can appear to see a dog whose owner’s problem is ‘fixed’. Viewers don’t see the fall-out from this kind of training.
So, if punishment is not necessarily cruel, and if it has some benefits, why is the use of punishment in dog training declining? And why do so many websites, including this one, now advocate reward-based training methods?
Disadvantages of training with punishment
Some of the disadvantages of punishment have only recently come to light. Others have been recognised for much longer.
Social attitudes to punishment have changed significantly in the last twenty years or so, and those who continue to use punishment now face increasing public disapproval.
Smacking dogs (and children) was once considered completely normal and acceptable. In the UK at least, if you smack your dog in a public place, you are quite likely to be assaulted by a passing stranger.
This change in attitude is accelerating the change in training methods, but it isn’t the sole cause. There are good reasons why dog trainers and behaviourists are on board with modern training.
Importantly, we now know that using punishment is associated with a higher incidence of aggression in the dogs themselves.
Several studies have shown that dogs trained even with what most of us would consider a very mild form of punishment, are more likely to be aggressive than dogs trained purely with rewards.
This is an important consideration for the safety of those living with dogs, and in a world where a dog’s life may depend on his temperament, for the safety of dogs themselves.
Slower learning for the dog
From your point of view as a dog owner, one of the biggest disadvantages of training with punishment lies in how long it takes to establish new behaviours.
Modern training methods are very fast ways to teach a dog to sit, come, lie down, walk next to you and so on.
Punitive methods slow down the speed at which your dog learns, in two ways. They make dogs afraid to make decisions for fear of making the wrong choice, and they often involve the use of a process called ‘modelling’ where the dog is manipulated into different positions.
Modelling slows learning by creating the wrong association between a command and the muscle movements that accompany it.
Not only that, but modern methods are the only way of teaching dogs to do a whole range of fun things that don’t come naturally to them (unloading the washing machine for example) Many of the things we want assistance dogs to do nowadays simply cannot be taught with force.
Slower learning for us
One of the problems with continuing to use some punishment in training, even very mild punishment, is that it becomes a crutch to fall back on. And that makes it harder for us to become skilled at training without punishment.
If you want to have a go at modern positive reinforcement training, you may find that you pick up the skills and techniques more quickly, if you abandon the use of punishment altogether
One key disadvantage of punishment, to both you and your dog is that punishment has a natural tendency to escalate.
Many dogs have powerful instincts and urges. It takes powerful punishments to diminish them
In addition, many dogs are tough characters. A light smack or a tap on the nose that is effective at punishing a six month old dog, may no longer work at nine months.
Why is punishment declining?
Part of the reason for the decline in the use of punishment in dog training is the shift in our attitude to dogs.
Nowadays, most of us see dogs as beloved family members. Together with a general social shift away from physical punishment, this means that fewer people want to punish dogs.
The disadvantages outweigh the benefits
On balance, the disadvantages of training with punishment greatly outweigh the advantages.
Speed of proofing using punishment is balanced against speed of establishing a wide variety of different skills using reward based methods.
Coupled with the risk of causing aggression and the tendency for punishment to escalate, this makes punishment-free training very appealing
The time taken to proof behaviours without force may in many cases be completely offset by the fact that force free training can begin at a much younger age and progress much more quickly.
We are improving at dog training
At the same time, our knowledge and ability to train without punishment has escalated. We now have role models to follow and mentors to lead us and skilled trainers to teach us.
Police dogs, guide dogs, bomb detection dogs, and assistance dogs are all trained using modern positive reinforcement techniques.
Can’t we just use mild punishment?
Some people will say “it’s silly lumping together people who hit their dogs with people who just use a mild punishments such as ‘BAD dog’ or a little tap”
“Surely, verbal punishments or rattle bottles which don’t physically harm dogs are a completely different issue?”
But the truth is, they are not different when it comes to the disadvantages of punishment. The studies that found dogs were more aggressive if punished during training, found this applied to all forms of punishment, not just dogs that were smacked.
And the slowing down effect on learning also applies to all forms of punishment, not just to cruelty or harsh treatment. Simply correcting a dog mildly for making the wrong choice, makes him less likely to make choices in the future.
This freedom to make choices is why force-free training is so fast, in the early stages.
Can we train dogs effectively without punishment?
Whether or not training without punishment is possible was once hotly debated. But the verdict is now clear. It is entirely possible to take a dog to a very high standard of obedience using modern methods and avoiding the use of punishment. There are now many dogs that have been trained without the use of any force, and many force-free trainers for us to learn from.
So if you want to have a go, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The benefits of training without punishment go far beyond the welfare of our dogs. Learning to do so is an immensely uplifting and empowering experience.
It takes a bit of practice, and for those of us that once trained using traditional methods, it is quite a learning curve. But the rewards are worth it.
Punishment in dog training is any consequence you as his trainer apply to your dog’s behaviour and which results in him doing it less.
It doesn’t have to be harsh or cruel, it simply has to be something that the dog finds unpleasant and will work to avoid.
For most of us, and for most dogs, the disadvantages of training with punishment outweigh the benefits. The dog training world is now moving away from the use of punishment, and many dogs nowadays, including many of our amazing service dogs, are trained without the use of aversives.
And don’t forget to let us know what you think about punishing dogs!