Behaviour ProblemsLiving with dogs

The Truth About Punishment

dogbot Emma Judson

Firstly, let me state that I am a force free, reward based trainer. Now, I’m going to tell you something about punishment that some reward based/force free trainers don’t want you to know.

It works.

Of course it works! We’ve seen it work in all sorts of animals and it’s scientifically proven through hundreds of research trials to work. We’ve seen animals use it with each other, particularly mothers with offspring and they can make it pretty effective, too.

I’m not going to tell you it doesn’t work in order to persuade you to use reward based methods, instead I’m going to tell you that there is a better way, and trust that you don’t want to punish your dog, that you do want a more effective method of training your dog, and that you don’t want the potentially harmful side effects that come from using punishment.

So here’s the truth about punishment:

  1. It works – when done properly
  2. It is very difficult to carry out effectively
  3. It has potentially harmful mental/emotional side effects
  4. It has potentially harmful physical side effects
  5. It’s impossible to avoid completely
  6. We sometimes use it on purpose!

So first of all, what is punishment?
It seems like such an obvious question but what is it really? Punishment is anything at all that makes an animal less likely to repeat a behaviour when the option is there.
What is punishing for one individual, may not be punishing at all for another. (It could even be rewarding! One of my dogs loves to have snowballs thrown at her, another looks at you like you just broke her heart.) This is something I see quite often, people don’t realise they’re punishing their dogs, sometimes even when they’re trying to reward them! Do you know how few dogs actually like to be petted on top of their head?? Yet you see it all the time ‘good dog’ *pat pat* and the dog sits there trying to lower his head out of the way, squinting his eyes with a look that says ‘I like him, but I wish he wouldn’t do this to me!’. Be careful that you aren’t punishing your dog by accident!
Furthermore, if you are doing something unpleasant to your dog to punish a behaviour over and over again, it’s not working so you aren’t punishing the behaviour, you’re simply being mean to your dog!

Timing is a big deal in punishment, as well as how you carry it out. This isn’t just in dogs, it’s with all animals, and even people (we are all animals after all). I have friends who I regularly hear say ‘I’m never drinking again’ whilst experiencing a hangover. They know why they are suffering, and they know how to prevent that suffering, but the next weekend they will experience the same punishment for drinking too much because their punishment is delayed. If they threw up immediately after drinking a glass of wine, they would stop drinking wine, but because it happens a few hours later, the rewarding effects of carrying out the behaviour outweigh the punishing effects they experience later, and they continue performing the same behaviour.

Our dogs have an even harder time of this, because they don’t understand what caused the punishment unless it’s made very clear at the time of the behaviour. Even a few seconds delay can cause them to misunderstand what the punishment is for. Whilst reward based training can go the same way, there is no damaging side effect for a badly timed reward.

The side effects of punishment (even punishment carried out correctly so that it works to stop a behaviour reoccurring) are frighteningly plentiful:

  1. Your dog may associate you with the punisher and become wary of you or aggressive towards you in a bid to stop you applying the punisher.
  2. Your dog may associate other people or animals with the punisher and start to offer distance increasing behaviours such as barking and lunging to keep others from approaching because to your dog, the punishment happens in the presence of other people/animals.
  3. Your dog can lose confidence in himself and be frightened to offer any kind of behaviour for fear of punishment. Think about it, if your boss or teacher asked you a difficult question and told you that if you get it wrong, your wages will be docked or you would have to sit at the front of the class with a dunce hat on, are you going to be altogether happy about giving any answer? Even if you think you know it?
    (Side note: Are you going to be a big fan of your boss or teacher?)
  4. Your dog can become depressed! Yes, it’s true! Wouldn’t you?
  5. Many punishers involve physical stimulation in some way ranging from a simple leash correction which, done repeatedly (or even just once for some dogs) can cause damage to the spine and/or thorax* to that swift ‘nudge’ with your foot to the dog’s ribcage (that’s a kick with a nicer name by the way) which can damage the ribs or internal organs. Many of those swift kicks seem to land right around the kidneys!

*You may have noticed the asterisk after the part about damage to the spine and thorax. In the interest of being balanced, there’s a high risk of the same kind of damage by pulling regularly on a flat collar. A well fitted harness that doesn’t restrict movement¹ and (reward based) training to walk on a loose lead are the best ways to avoid this.

It is impossible to avoid punishment completely, none of my dogs get under my mobility scooter wheels… anymore! Whilst I do what I can to prevent flat paws, a couple of them have had their feet under the wheels at some point, but it was a very effective punisher! They only ever did it once! Even so, it certainly put them off the scooter at first, so again, there was fall out from it, I had to then reward them in the presence of the scooter and make the scooter a rewarding experience again (scooter = walkies).

The environment is full of punishers, whether it be a dog who hates water stepping in a puddle and learning to walk around them, or like the time my boys found a hedgehog and got their noses pricked. You can’t control it all, you can, however, be careful what your dog experiences and be prepared to do a bit of confidence building again when they experience something like the scooter over their toes (I did not build confidence around hedgehogs!! I’m quite happy for them to avoid those!).

Finally, we even use punishment on purpose sometimes! There are two types of punishment – one is where you add something the dog finds unpleasant when he does the behaviour so he learns not to repeat it (the hedgehog, the scooter etc), the other is where you remove something the dog likes when he does a behaviour so he learns not to repeat it. This second one is the one we tend to use occasionally. For example, we stop playing when our puppy with needle like teeth bites too hard. Puppy learns if he wants to play, he mustn’t do that! However, even the second type of punishment, done too often has its fall out as it can knock confidence. It’s far safer and more effective to set your dog up to get things right, manage his environment when necessary, and let him learn what he can do to make good things happen. This way, you end up with a dog who makes the choices you want him to, without force.

¹ I use and recommend (and stock for those local to me) The Perfect Fit Harness, there are also a few more, if you are interested in a list of good harnesses that don’t affect mobility and are well fitted for comfort and health, feel free to get in touch.

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