The Problem With Punishment

Until about 15 years ago, it was standard to include, and primarily rely on, punishment to train your dog. Many of the best trainers in the business started out in classes that used choke chains, shock collars, hitting on the nose or butt, and other types of punishment to discourage behaviors. If you weren’t willing to punish, then you weren’t willing to train. Thankfully, times have changed and newer, better, more scientifically sound methods have been developed, but why did that happen? What’s wrong with punishment?

Punishment often isn’t effective, because it doesn’t train an alternative behavior. Especially if the behavior is stress or fear motivated, the behavior that crops up to replace the one you’ve punished might be worse. If your dog is replacing nuisance barking with nuisance chewing or digging, have you really made any progress? Rather than punish a variety of behaviors, trainers have discovered that it’s more effective and easier to reward a single correct behavior. The less guess-work your dog has to do, the fewer mistakes he’ll make. Punishment also requires excellent timing. A correction must be delivered within one second of a misbehavior, in order for the dog to have the best chance of connecting the deed to the punishment. For things like a slow recall, or accidents in the house, a poorly timed punishment just makes things worse. The dog learns not to come back to you, or to hide when they’re going to the bathroom inside. They haven’t been shown what the correct thing is, so they are just working on avoiding punishment.

Punishment discourages new behaviors. Dogs are poor observational learners, so it can be hard to communicate what you want to them. Most dogs won’t learn to open a fence gate, for example, even though they watch you do it every day. The few that do, won’t be able to teach many other dogs to do it, no matter how many times they demonstrate. That’s just not the way dogs learn. If you want to train a behavior more complex than “lay down,” you need your dog to  do something, so that you can reward tiny pieces of the behavior and build up to the whole thing. Dogs that expect to be punished are often afraid of being wrong. They’re so afraid of making a mistake and being punished that they freeze when they don’t know what to do. You can teach basic obedience with punishment, but the more complex the behavior you want, the more punishment hurts you. You could argue that you don’t need more than basic obedience, but extra training helps pet owners bond with their dogs, and gives them ways to blow off mental energy when they can’t take a walk. The more behaviors you train, and the more he’s encouraged to think in a constructive way, the less time and energy he has to figure out how to steal, chew and otherwise terrorize the household.

Punishment can increase the likelihood that your dog will become aggressive, and  inhibit the signs of stress that warn of an impending violent episode, and create negative associations. It’s very common to hit, or otherwise correct dogs that growl or show other signs of unease around children, strangers or other dogs. It appears to work, because the dog quits growling, but the underlying tension is still there. In fact, it’s worse, because the dog expects to be hit on the nose, or corrected with a choke collar whenever there are children, strangers or other dogs around. The dog has learned that growling, barking, and negative body language don’t work, so he doesn’t use them anymore. The use of punishment has created a perfect recipe for a bite that “comes out of nowhere.” The use of shock collars has been connected with aggression, sometimes extreme aggression, towards other animals, objects or people who were around when the shock was administered. Dogs that don’t understand the collar is hurting them start to look around for what is. A hurt, frightened dog doesn’t need much evidence to decide who’s to blame and take action. Dogs also use the behavior of their owner to help them generalize the behavior they can expect from other people. Dogs are less tolerant with strangers to begin with, so if they have learned that sometimes people hit them, they’re going to be that much more likely to lash out.

Even without all these downsides, trainers have found that punishment simply isn’t as effective as rewards in teaching the correct behavior. The problem with applying this, is that you can’t reward a negative. You have to train an alternative behavior, and that is a sticking point with many people. They want their dog to not do things, like not barking, or not jumping, or not door dashing. In order to reward these things, you must pick an alternative behavior for the dog to use in those circumstances, such as sitting, or playing with a toy, and reward that behavior. It’s much easier, in the short term, to notice that the dog has jumped on you and punish him, than it is to anticipate that he will jump, set him up to sit instead, and reward that behavior, but in this case, easier isn’t better. In the long term, rewarding an alternative behavior works much better.  When we were training Biscotti not to jump, he was constantly changing things up, and trying to figure out if he was allowed to jump up and lick our faces if he used the furniture instead of us, or if he didn’t touch us with anything but his tongue (and yes, he can absolutely do that), or if it wasn’t right when we came in the door, or if… I could have saved myself a lot of trouble just by training him to sit for attention, like I’ve done with the hounds.

Behavioral issues are the number one reason dogs don’t stay in their original homes. While many people feel that because punishment was such a mainstay in the past, it must work, but that’s just not true. Old-style dog training is failing dogs and their families. Training a dog is hard work, and we owe it to ourselves and our pets to use the methods that have the best chance for success. There are so many people who never thought they would give up a dog, who make that choice because they simply don’t know what else to do. They’re living with aggression, or destructive behaviors, or a dog who simply doesn’t listen to them. Until the average dog owner catches up with behavioral science, things can’t improve.

By Laura-C

Hopes to someday train her dogs not to be douchebags.

10 replies on “The Problem With Punishment”

My boy is fear-aggressive, and the first trainer we worked with was kind of old-school Cesar Milan-y. When Gershwin growled at other dogs, we were to get in his face, assert dominance, etc. Needless to say, this did NOT work. Some time later, we found a trainer that had classes specifically for reactive dogs and that used positive training methods and G is much better…not perfect, but better. I do regret not finding a more positive trainer sooner, but fortunately, Gershwin still loves me. The hard part is remembering to decide on an appropriate replacement behavior outside of the moment and then implementing said behavior at the appropriate moment.

I do raise my voice at them, but only to get their attention and ONLY ever if I catch them in the act, and usually after I’ve redirected them multiple times, cause GOSHDARNIT if they break another of my irons, so help me god, I am sending them to the glue factory and not even the nice glue factory, but the one that makes the paste that looks like mashed potatoes. I will also smack his butt if he ignores me in favor of eating poop, cause that is both disgusting AND rude.

Sometimes you’ve got to do something to get their attention. We used a sharp eh-eh sound for Biscotti, but with the hounds it’s mostly noise-related offenses, so we actually use a water gun.
The key is that they’re not terrified of either of those things (they’ll actually stare at us with the water gun in hand and wag excitedly), it’s just a way of saying “HEY, STOP THAT!”, and they’re rewarded for stopping it.
Once you start using fear and pain to get them to behave is where you start to hit problems. My husband’s sister and brother sent his Boykin Spaniel puppy off to old-style gun dog training for 6 months, and he came back terrified of strangers and strange dogs. Some dogs turn out fine, and the guy has enough success to keep him in business, but it ruins too many of them for my taste.

I start with the eh-eh (also works great with noisy classes!), move to calling his name in my “don’t mess with me” voice, tell him that if I have to come get him he will NOT be happy, huff loudly, and THEN go get him. I really hate having to go get him cause I have to put on the possibly spider infested Crocs and risk stepping in poop. Dude knows EXACTLY what he’s doing, deserves what he gets. His response to the smack is usually all like “What? You were calling my name? I totally didn’t hear you, you were so far away! Of course I’ll go inside right now! (and chew up your lunchbox)”

And the gun dog thing pisses me off. You shouldn’t be ruining dogs at all. If your training style isn’t working for a particular dog, send them to another trainer. If a dog just isn’t suited to being a gun dog, stop trying!

But you’re ruining his life! Poop is delicious!
Sadly, the command the hounds know best is “That better not be deer poop!” which indicates that they should scatter if they’re into something delicious on a walk. Sometimes it’s deer poop. Sometimes it’s worse. *shudder*

I totally agree with you about the gun dog training. It makes more sense to me to start with the mildest methods effective, because as you move up the scale, you have issues with an increasingly high percentage of dogs, but people don’t think like that. From their point of view, the old fashioned way worked with SIL’s lab, therefore it works, end of story. The fact that you can pull up studies and look at what worked in the highest percentage of cases is immaterial.

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