Dog Training: To Punish Or Not To Punish

Punishment is a controversial subject in dog training, though it is widely used by both traditional and positive trainers.

The most common punishment is positive punishment. It consists in stopping an undesired behavior by adding an unpleasant thing or situation. Therefore, leash tugs are positive punishments.

On the other hand, negative punishment consists in stopping an undesired behavior by removing a pleasant thing or situation. Thus, you would be applying negative punishment if you remove a food treat or a toy from your dog’s sight.

Positive punishment is widely used by traditional trainers and seldom used by positive trainers. Negative punishment is mostly used by positive trainers and seldom used by traditional trainers.

Typical positive punishers in dog training are: a pinch from the prong collar, an unpleasant and perhaps painful sensation when the choke chain closes, the “No” command, water squirts on the dog’s face, loud sounds produced by objects thrown near the dog, electric shocks produced by electric collars and electric fences, etc.

Typical negative punishers in dog training are: ignoring your dog, a food treat removed from the scene, a toy removed from the scene, the end of a game, the end of a walk, stopping the walk when the dog pulls the leash, etc.

Although punishment is so widely used to train dogs, even in positive training, most trainers are not aware of its risks and limitations. Both positive and negative punishments could produce collateral adverse effects which include stress, anxiety and a reduction of learning abilities. Besides, when used too often, punishments could also lead to shyness and/or aggression. Of course, negative punishment tend to have less (or at least less intense) adverse effects.

Another disadvantage of punishment is that it has no long term effects. While you can use punishment to stop your dog from doing an unwanted behavior, this does not ensure that the behavior’s frequency will be reduced. Punished behaviors tend to be maintained when the punishment is not applied frequently. That is the reason why prong, choke and electric collars are used even on dogs that have already being trained.

Despite the short term span of punishment, punished behaviors’ frequency seems to be reduced in dogs that have been trained in such way. However, this usually is an erroneous interpretation because those behaviors don’t appear when the punisher (maybe the trainer) is present. Then, after the punisher has been removed, the frequency of those behaviors tends to increase again.

It is very easy to see what I explained in the previous paragraph. Just look for a traditional trained dog which has not been trained by his owner. The dog will work perfectly when the trainer is present but stop working when the trainer is absent. Therefore, you can infer that the dog experiences some kind of anxiety when the trainer is present, because that man is somehow associated with punishment.

This does not mean that traditional trainers are cruel or violent. Of course there are stupid and cruel guys who call themselves trainers, but most traditional trainers can train dogs that obey happily and without fear. However, to achieve this level of training while using punishment and negative reinforcement, you must be very experienced. It is not easy to become a good traditional dog trainer.

A similar situation occurs when using negative punishment. For instance, you can stop your dog from jumping on you just by ignoring him when that behavior is displayed. However, it takes just one reinforcing episode (giving attention to your dog when he jumps on you) to take back the unwanted behavior. Even worst, it is very likely that the jumping behavior will be strengthened by that reinforcing episode, so you will need much more time to retrain your dog.

Ok, at this point it seems that this article is just an anti-punishment propaganda. Please believe me, it is not such thing. Punishment could be useful to train animals, which has been proven by scientific studies on experimental psychology. However, it could also have really big drawbacks.

So, if you are thinking to use punishment to train your dog, please don’t rely only on reading about it. Call an expert and ask him/her to teach you the proper way to use punishments. And please don’t believe the false statement that “choke chains, prong collars and electric collars are not punishing devices, but corrective ones”. They are punishers. Therefore, if you are going to use those devices to train your dog, learn it from an expert.

On the other hand, you have a lot of alternatives to train your dog without punishment. There are several proven methods to stop your dog from doing unwanted behaviors without using punishment: training an incompatible behavior, putting the unwanted behavior on command, reinforcing every behavior except the undesired one, changing the motivation, etc.

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