Does Punishment Have a Place in Dog Training Today?

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The short answer is yes. However, it is vital to understand that punishment doesn’t have to be harsh or painful to be effective. In this article I will explain some of the terminology used to describe punishment, and give real world use cases for where it can be applied.

[ .. ] punishment is any change in a human or animal’s surroundings that occurs after a given behavior [ .. ] which reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. Source: Wikipedia


In dog training, the above is exactly the response we are looking for when it comes to punishment.

Let’s use clear definitions

While you may think you don’t need punishment to be explained further, it is important to know that punishment comes in many categories.

Punishment is anything that will decrease the likelihood of a behavior repeating in the future.

Negative punishment is done by removing something the dog values, thus decreasing the possibility of the dogs behavior repeating in the future. A good example is neglecting to give the dog attention when he jumps on you, where “attention” is what you’re taking away from the dog.

Positive punishment, involves introducing any stimuli that decreases the likelihood of a behavior repeating in the future. A dominance-based trainer will for example often jerk the dogs collar, or even cut off it’s air supply by hanging the dog from a choke chain (also known as “helicoptering”).

So what should you use to train your dog?

If we are to follow the recommendations of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and most trainers and dog behaviorists today, using a combination of positive reinforcement (not discussed in this article) and negative punishment is the most humane, and often most effective, approach - as evidenced by modern behavioral science.

The use of harsh, aversive punishment is simply not necessary when it’s opponent is applied correctly. This is especially true for difficult or aggressive dogs both in terms of (lasting) effectiveness, and because it is irresponsible to not treat the underlying cause of the problem, which aversive, “quick fix” punishment usually doesn’t do.

Why positive punishment (harsh and punitive) is ineffective, difficult to administer, yields unreliable results and doesn’t help the underlying cause of the problem

Aversive punishment is ineffective in that it usually doesn’t help the dog overcome the underlying problem (fear, anxiety, aggression, resource guarding etc), but instead suppresses the undesired behavior. This is not good for the dog psychologically, and in some cases, if the punishment is severe, the dog can suffer physical injuries.

Example scenario: using positive punishment to “solve” food guarding

Resource guarding is very common, especially when it comes to food. If a dog starts growling when you go near its food bowl, positive punishment dictates that you take away a valued resource to combat the problem. Many will proceed by removing the dogs food.

What the dog learns by this is that whenever you go near his food bowl, he loses the food. This creates a negative association between you, him and food. By simple logic, the dog will probably increase its guarding, and become more protective of his food.

The owners response to the increased guarding behavior can be to scold the dog, strike the dog in the neck or even roll him over (which you should never do), hoping that the dog will get the message.

Often, provided the human is successful in introducing enough discomfort/pain onto the dog, he’ll appear to stop guarding, and many will think the problem has been solved.

Meanwhile, back in reality, the dogs guarding behavior has not been removed at all, it has been suppressed. The dog has learned that increasing his guarding behavior didn’t work because he was just punished more severely by doing so. Eventually the dog shut down (or gave up), at which point the human stopped introducing (punitive) negative stimuli. In the dogs head, he’s still afraid of losing his food, and his guarding/aggression is not gone.

Besides the psychological torment, the possibility of increased guarding and possibly aggression has increased even more.

Growling to protect a resource is a natural behavior. It is a warning signal used by dogs to tell other’s to stay away, otherwise “I’ll bite!”. When this behavior is suppressed enough times, the dog learns that it is no point in giving a warning signal.

What can end up happening, is that the next time someone comes too close, for example a child, the dog will bite without warning. Something humans often interpret as “the dog attacked without reason”, when in reality it has been taught that giving warning signals results in aversive punishment, and is therefore no longer giving them.

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure

Ideally, resource and food guarding can be easily prevented in the first place.

If you already have a problem with guarding behavior, gradually showing the dog that you are not a threat is the best way for the dog to learn that it’s not necessary to guard. This can be done by carefully approaching the dog (at a pace that’s comfortable to him) with a piece of food he values even more than what he’s currently eating, thus showing him that even though he’s already eating, you are a source of even better food and so on. If the problem is severe, even this can be dangerous, and it’s best to consult a trainer who follows modern scientific standards when it comes to training.

Negative punishment is difficult to administer

It is also worth noting that punishing by way of negative stimuli is unreliable and difficult to administer because it is hard to do consistently. For example, if you scold a dog for jumping on the counter sometimes, but not all, it is difficult for the dog to understand that the counter is off limits because the dogs brain doesn’t deal with inconsistency very well. You might also end up with a dog that learns that if you are not present (ie you’re at work), it’s okay to go on the counter then, but he’ll be afraid to do so when you’re home.

Example scenario: Using positive reinforcement and negative punishment to stop jumping behavior

I have already explained this technique in a separate article but in short, it goes like this.

1) When the dog jumps on you he’s usually asking for attention.

2) By ignoring the dog you are using negative punishment by removing the “attention”, so the dog doesn’t get what he wants.

3) After a little while (depending on how insistent he is), the dog will usually give up. When this happens you immediately praise him (positive reinforcement), thus reintroducing what you took away in step 2 (attention). By using his own reasoning, the dog will quickly figure out that by being more calm, he gets what he wants.

From here you can teach the dog to greet you however you want. By sitting, standing, laying down - whatever. You get what you want, he gets what he wants. You both win.


Author: Stian Karlsen

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