To punish or not to punish

November 29, 2022
Ask the Trainer

When it comes to behavioral training, punishment works. Or at least, it appears to…at first.

But what most owners fail to realize, punishment as a training tool often comes with detrimental side effects. So, what are the side effects you can expect?
That’s the problem. We don’t know.
Dogs make associations all the time.

When I first started training dogs, I didn’t know much about various training philosophies and approaches. My mentor trainer was actively using choke collars, prong collars, physical punishment, and leash corrections. There were some treats but given very sparingly. It wasn’t until I started Academy for Dog Trainers in San Francisco, CA that I learned that you can effectively train without the use of aversive methods. I never looked back.

TO PUNISH?

If a dog growls and lunges at fast-running small children and is punished with a spray bottle, sometimes it is enough to stop that behavior. Frequently, “success” is temporary. The dog growls and lunges because they are afraid, protective of you or the space, triggered by the movement, etc.

Why Punishment Can Be Dangerous (for everyone involved)

When we punish the dog for growling, it may suppress the noise, but it doesn’t address the reasons for that behavior, and it doesn’t teach the dog what to do instead. In fact, by turning off the dog’s warning signal (the growling), we make the dog more dangerous near running small children. In the future, the dog may attack without any warning.

When a dog is punished, we have NO CONTROL over the associations the dog is making at the moment we punish them.

Building Associations Due to Punishment

The dog in the example above could become afraid of ALL small children.

Or children wearing shorts.

Or children wearing hats.

Or spray bottles.

Or whatever they noticed the moment we punished them.

In the future, the dog may hide when a person cleans a surface using a spray bottle, or have an aggressive reaction. The dog may start growling at children walking calmly, etc.

We got rid of growling, which in itself is dangerous, and also unintentionally created a new issue.


The Technology Behind Your Go-To Training Equipment

Shock collars work by creating pain, noisemakers such as air horns work by scaring the dog, and citronella collars and squirt bottles work by startling the dog or creating an unpleasant sensation.

Dogs stop doing the behavior to avoid pain: being shocked, sprayed, or hearing a scary noise but the devices don’t teach the dogs an alternative behavior.
Sometimes dogs shut down completely. It can be easily mistaken for “ well trained” while dogs offer few, or no behaviors out of fear. There is also a risk of redirected aggression. When you reach for a device when the dog does the unwanted behavior, over time, a dog could start acting aggressively toward any arm or hand movement, or any approach behavior whatsoever.

As a parent, I understand sensory overload, being stretched thin, the mental overload. Even knowing the side effects of punishment, I had moments when I was ready to throw in the towel and use punishment because I was so overwhelmed. It is tempting, and seems like a quick fix, and who doesn’t like quick fixes?

The 2 Reasons I Didn't Punish My Dog

1. Children can learn aggressive behaviors by observing poor modeling.⁠

When you want to stop your dog from certain behaviors, and you yell (at) or roughly handle your dog, your child is going to copy your behavior.

Michelle Tangeman from Thriving Toddler shares that more than two decades of research have found a strong correlation between young children’s exposure to harsh and excessive punishment and antisocial behavior and conduct disorders as adolescents and adults. (Patterson, 1982; Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Sprague & Walker, 2000).

2. I don’t want my dog to listen to me because she is scared of being physically punished.

I know that while I might see a short-term change in the behavior, in the long run, the nuisance behavior almost always returns, sometimes tenfold stronger. Yes, I know cases, when the punishment was used, worked and the dog was fine or mostly fine. But knowing how dogs learn, there is always a risk your dog might not be fine.

OR NOT TO PUNISH?

As Kelley Filson, one of the best trainers in San Francisco, CA, says:
“Aversive training methods go by many names, but they all punish dogs through fear and pain. The dog behaves to avoid discomfort. Training your dog should NOT hurt your dog, or make you feel abusive!’”

Recognizing and Managing Your Dog’s Triggers

If you want to address undesired behavior, understanding what triggers a dog’s behavior is key. Once you identify triggers, reduce the dog’s opportunity to rehearse unwanted behavior in response to a trigger aka management. This step is often overlooked but you are not going to make any progress or the progress will be slow if your dog is still rehearing the undesired behavior frequently or on a regular basis.

Management tools will look different based on where the behavior happens.

Examples:
✔baby gates⁠
✔exercise pens⁠
✔separate rooms⁠
✔crates⁠
✔playpens and ⁠super yards
✔secure backyard, weather permitting
✔crossing the street
✔avoiding places with triggers
✔leaving your dog home instead of taking them with you to a place with triggers


Go to Dog Meets Baby Amazon Store to check out baby gates and playpens recommended by me, my clients, and my followers.

If your dog barks a lot, remove the known triggers

  • Disconnect your doorbell, leave a note with instructions on your front door, don't let your dog sit on the windowsill and bark at passersby, have a sound machine by the front door to block as much outside noise as possible, etc. ⁠
  • Get a window film.
  • Instructions on the delivery app: 'Leave it at my door'; 'Please don't knock or ring the doorbell.'
  • Invest in a video doorbell such as Nest, Ring, Wyze, or Arlo.
  • Ask your visitor to call you, text you, or meet them with your dogs outside.
  • Increase mental and physical stimulation. Tired dogs bark less!⁠ Check out my Amazon Store for puzzle toys and chews recommendations.

If your dog pulls a lot on the leash

  • Invest in no-pull equipment
  • Sign up for a force free obedience class that covers pulling. Many training facilities offer loose leash walking classes.

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

Most parents know that babies and dogs have to be supervised, but supervision is only as good as your knowledge of your dog’s body language and behavior. Understanding what your dog is communicating with their body will help you keep everyone safe.

The ladder of aggression is designed like traffic light signals:

Green means the dog is: Worried, Conflicted, Anxious, Unsure, Uncomfortable.
Orange means the dog is: Very Worried, Scared, More Serious, Very Uncomfortable.
Red means: STOP NOW! BACK OFF NOW! If you don’t stop, I will bite.


Don’t expect every dog to show all the signs. Some dogs have very expressive body language and are easier to read, while some are more subtle.

If your dog has been punished for growling or showing teeth you may not see these warning signs.

Ian Dunbar, world-renowned veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and dog trainer says that punishing a dog for growling is like removing the ticker from a time bomb. You run the risk that a dog will avoid the early warning procedure and go straight for a snap or bite the next time that they are uncomfortable.

Helping Dogs With Aggression

In order to resolve aggression, a structured training plan and classical conditioning work best.
Working with a certified dog trainer who specializes in aggressive dogs would be ideal. I share how and where to find a great dog trainer in this blog post.
If working with a trainer is not in your budget right now, Aggressive Dog by Michael Shikasio CDBC, a world-renowned aggression expert, is a great resource that has free webinars for dog owners.

Your Dog Will Thank You

There are many trainers who use and recommend punishment and there might not be a trainer or facility near you that offers a different kind of training. Often, that’s what most people in your social circle recommend, sometimes even your partner. I understand that it may be really challenging to choose not to punish when you are running on fumes as a parent of young kids.
This may not be a popular opinion, but if you use punishment and after reading this blog post, want to change it, start small. Choose to do one thing differently, and go from there. Your dog will thank you.