Dog Training Punishment – Maybe the Most Positive Thing You Can Do For Your Dog

Dog "Punishment"I was recently talking with a colleague of mine a Philadelphia Dog Trainer and we both agreed that Dog Training Punishment is probably the most confused and maligned word in dog training today. It is a loaded term that causes a great deal of polarization amongst dog trainers and confusion to the general dog owning public.There are daily battles on the internet by both sides of the issue as to the efficacy of using punishment when training dogs. These battles are heated and often end up in name calling and accusations of cruelty and inhumanity.

I must say that most of the heated rhetoric comes from the side of the “All Positive”/”Dog Friendly” School. Most of us professional dog trainers who use a balanced approach don’t generally make comments about other trainers but are literally dragged into this debate by zealots who attack us either by email or through their blogs.

I have done a lot of web surfing and have visited 100’s of dog training sites and the “All Positive”/”Dog Friendly” sites say that they support only the use of Positive Reinforcement and harshly denounce the use of Punishment as being cruel and in-humane. Some report that they do use Negative Punishment sometimes (The so called time-out punishment).

One such web site (I won’t name the dog trainer) goes as far to say that her training does not involve any form of intimidation, confrontation, violence, reprimands, or domination…a training system that is not only humane, compassionate, and reliable, but is also based on the latest scientific studies.” She goes on to state, “For scientific, moral, and ethical reasons using these forms of conditioning can produce unwanted side effects in addition to the basic trauma they do to an animal.” This trainer’s definition of intimidation seems to mean any form of correction, such as voice, touch, body language, or a device.

The ADPT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) in their position paper on Defining “Dog Friendly” states, “Dog-Friendly” training is training that utilizes primarily positive reinforcement: secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement.”

With this kind of position statement it is not hard to understand why ADPT trainers take such a hard and opinionated position on the use of punishment. A lot of them have taken it to the extreme and have totally eliminated punishment of any kind from their tool box and condemn anyone who uses positive punishment and negative reinforcement.

The ADPT also states, “The ADPT also recognizes that scientific studies have found that it is possible to effectively train animals using positive reinforcement and negative punishment”.

Yes that is true, but scientific studies also show overwhelmingly that Punishment properly used is as effective and in some cases more effective than Positive Reinforcement alone.

Many of the “Dog Friendly” dog trainers use the phrase “Science Based” when describing their training methods. As a result it is often difficult to have any constructive discussion about the proper place that Punishment plays in Dog Training. When confronted with, “Your methods are cruel and in-humane” there is little room to have a logical and constructive dialogue. Research also has proven that punishment works. So using punishment is also Science Based.

In Steven Lindsay’s monumental and authoritative work, “The Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training” Volume One, he has several chapters on Aversive Control of Behavior and the use of punishment. He discusses the many misconceptions of the term and its use in dog training. His work on dog behavior and training is an encyclopedia of Dog Behavior and Training. He goes into depth reviewing years of literature and scientific research into the dog’s history, physiology, behavior, training procedures and problem-solving techniques. His three volume set is over 1200 pages and has been peer reviewed by top Animal Behaviorists and Scientists.

In Chapter 8, “Aversive Control of Behavior” Lindsay writes, “In Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark”, the Bellman woos his crew to believe that truth is sanctioned by his earnest repetition of some statement-no matter how false or ludicrous it happens to be.”

“Many critics of punishment seem to be guided by a similar criterion of truth, believing that a heartfelt repetition of a falsehood is enough to make it true. Despite lingering historical influences already discussed and contemporary efforts to misrepresent it usefulness, the efficacy of punishment is not really in doubt, especially if science is accepted as the final arbiter of the debate. The facts are clear and indisputable: When applied properly (promptly and in the correct measure), punishment works, it works quickly, and, in many cases, the suppressive effects of punishment are permanent. Among several hundred scientific studies demonstrating the efficacy of punishment, Azrin and Holz state the situation in certain and unambiguous terms:”

“”One of the most dramatic characteristics of punishment is the virtual irreversibility or permanence of the response reduction once the behavior has become completely suppressed…Virtually all studies of punishment have been in complete agreement that the reduction of responses by punishment is immediate if the punishment is at all effective…responses have been drastically reduced or eliminated on the very first day in which punishment was administered.””

Lindsay goes on to say,”Besides misrepresenting and confusing the facts, excessive moralizing about the use of punishment and other aversive training procedures may have a very undesirable effect on the dog-owning public, making responsible owners feel guilty about exercising the necessary aversive prerogatives needed to establish constructive limits and boundaries over a dog’s behavior.”

Lindsay proposes a balanced approach of directive training and behavior modification, not just positive reinforcement. He states that a dog’s welfare is best served when the owner is taught how and when to use punishment effectively and humanly.

There is no doubt that punishment works in dog training but it’s use should be guided by knowledge, ethical restraint and compassion.

Guidelines for Humane Punishment

Adapted from Steven Lindsay’s “Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training”, Volume One, Chapter 8)

  1. Remember that you are punishing the “Behavior” not the “Dog”.
  2. Never punish in anger or frustration.
  3. Never hit, slap, kick, beat or hang a dog or puppy. Do not use your hands or objects such as brooms or sticks. Corrections should be delivered with a leash or remote training device as to avoid a dog from becoming reactive to people’s hands or feet.
  4. Punishment should be firm and immediate. The closer to the infringement the better. A punisher should be delivered no more than 3 to 5 seconds from the act. The longer the delay the less effective the correction.
  5. Punishment should occur at the earliest point in a sequence of behaviors. For example: Dogs that lunge at other dogs while on the leash typically give a series of cues before the act of lunging or barking occurs. They may stiffen their body, their ears may go back, their head may drop and so on. By observing these precursors to the actual lunging you can stop the behavior from happening by correcting these precursors to the final behavior.
  6. Always give the dog an “Antecedent Signal” such as “Leave-it”, “Stop”, “Off”, “NO”, “Enough” and so on, before applying the punishment. The reprimand (Antecedent Signal) will eventually become a “Conditioned Punisher” and if done correctly will replace the need for actual punishment.
  7. Select the right punishment for the Crime. Try to understand what is motivating the dog’s behavior and shape the punishment accordingly. For example, if the dog is barking at you for attention and for you to play giving him a 30 second Time Out might be more appropriate than squirting him with water. There is no “one size fits all” form of punishment. You need to take into account the dog’s temperament and personality. You do not want to kill an ant with a gun nor do you want to stop a charging Rhino with a sling shot. What might be overly punitive to one dog may only excite and escalate another dog’s bad behavior.
  8. The most effective correction generates a strong startle effect at the moment of Delivery. “Startle” is necessary to maximize the punitive effects. Pain in not necessary. Examples would be a trap on a counter to stop food stealing or digging in the garden. A loud noise to stop nuisance barking or quick jerk on the leash when lunging out the front door.
  9. Punish only one behavior at a time. Trying to correct multiple behaviors will only confuse the dog.
  10. Use the correct amount of punishment the first time. Slowly increasing the amount of punishment will only habituate the dog to the punishment and over time you will need more punishment than you would have needed in the first place.
  11. Vary the type of punishment you use. One may work well in one situation but not in another.
  12. If a correction/punisher does not work after 3 to 5 times you should reevaluate and possibly try another approach.
  13. Make sure that the punishment is not inadvertently reinforcing the behavior you are trying to stop. If the behavior persists and or recovers rapidly you may have to reevaluate and find another punisher. A good example is a dominate dog that likes to jump on people as a part of greeting and rough play may get even more excited and aggressive with it’s jumping when you try to put a knee into his chest.
  14. And most importantly be consistent with your punishers and how you reinforce behavior.