Undoubtedly the most common word directed at domestic companion dogs is “no”. There is no other more ubiquitous response to a wide range of perceived dog “misbehaviours”. But in most cases “no” is not a punishment – meaning, by definition, it does not make the unwanted behaviour less likely to occur in the future. “No” often serves as a temporary interrupter, only for the dog to engage in the same behaviour again shortly after or when you are not around. You may then resort to more drastic measures until your verbal or physical responses to your dog’s behaviour become indeed punishing to them and stop the behaviour, at least in some contexts.
Why does dog training still rely so much on punishment – in particular of the aversive kind – and why is this a problem?
The road to nowhere.
A firm “NO!” can interrupt your dog’s behaviour and reward you with immediate positive feedback: The dog stops doing whatever you didn’t approve of. This instant illusion of success may tempt you to believe that firm “NOs” are indeed a good strategy to control your dog. Here is the problem:
- If your dog was merely startled by your exclamation, they are likely to re-engage in the unwanted behaviour.
- If your “NO!” was harsh enough, your dog may no longer engage in the behaviour in your presence.
- If your frequent use of “NO!” is truly terrifying (and possibly the predictor of worse punishment to come), your dog may no longer engage in behaviour.
Your verbal reprimand was not punishing at all or not punishing enough for your dog. The motivation to engage in the behaviour has not changed and your “NO” has not created a strong enough negative experience for the dog to stop engaging in the behaviour.
The important part here is “in your presence”. The motivation to engage in the behaviour is still there, but your dog has learned that you turn into a scary person when they do the behaviour in your presence. As a result, your dog will only engage in the behaviour when you are not around.
In this case, your dog has given up. Your dog may no longer willingly engage in any behaviour. The risk of punishment has eclipsed your dog’s active, playful and happy outlook on life. You have effectively “punished the dog out of your dog”. The constant thwarting of your dog’s drives and desires has rendered your dog helpless, depressed and shut down. This is a significant mental health issue.
Neither outcome is desirable. You will either have to keep yelling “NO” every time your dog “misbehaves” or you make your dog afraid of you – or both. Instead of coming up with a solution you resort to being reactive and negative. This is neither good for you nor your dog.
Setting your dog up to fail.
It may sound like a better strategy to punish your dog for unwanted behaviour and at the same time offer your dog an alternative behaviour to engage in. But is it?
Many years ago I got lost in a remote part of the Australian wilderness on a cold and foggy winter’s day. After wading through a waist deep body of water my path was blocked by yet another expanse of wetland. Thinking I had taken a wrong turn, I backtracked and launched a new attempt only to arrive back at the same place every time. I was going in circles. In a moment of panic I decided to head off in the direction of a large swamp, believing it would take me out of the maze. Of course, chances are I would never have been heard of again, if I hadn’t quickly come to my senses.
Panic is not a good decision maker. Neither is distress. You may believe you offer your dog options with one path leading towards safety and the others towards punishment, but what does your dog experience? How can you hope – based on your human logic – that your dog will choose your preferred option?
Dog training that focuses on delivering bad consequences for unwanted behaviour relies on two possible justifications:
- It expects dogs to make smart decisions about their course of action as if they could intellectually understand that they are faced with options and that only one of those options leads to a positive outcome.
- It teaches dogs through repeated experience that only one course of action results in something good (or at least nothing bad) and all the other options result in something bad.
This idea is anthropomorphic: All evidence suggests that dogs cannot possible make decisions based on what we call logic or foresight. Your dog simply engages in whatever behaviours come naturally (which generally are the ones we don’t like and therefore punish). It simply does not (it biologically cannot!) “occur” to a dog that you are punishing them so that they chose a different course of action.
The second scenario – that a dog learns by repeatedly heading down the road to punishment and, if they are lucky, occasionally stumble across the safe option – is the more logical one but it is disturbing. This approach has no trouble of potentially causing significant distress to the dog, even if the dog has no way of knowing that their behaviour leads to punishment. It also ignores the paralysing effect of fear and distress on learning and decision making.
The dog is set up to fail so the trainer can successfully punish. Is this not a rather mean – and possibly even cruel – way to teach a dog (or anyone for that matter)?
Helping your dog to win.
Wouldn’t it be much better if you showed your dog how they can succeed from the start? This is easily achieved by first teaching your dog behaviours that you approve of. If these behaviours are incompatible with the behaviours you don’t like, bingo! Whenever the dog engages in an unwanted behaviour, e.g. jumping up on a visitor, ask them to do an alternative behaviour, e.g. go fetch a toy. The trigger that originally caused the dog to choose the unwanted behaviour can now become the trigger to do the alternative behaviour, e.g. visitor comes through the door –> go fetch a toy.
If you have thoroughly taught your dog alternative behaviours with high value rewards and in small enough steps and this is either not sufficient or simply not practical to extinguish an unwanted behaviour, there is one form of punishment that does not risk your dog becoming distraught*: Well-executed time-outs. Losing access to something rewarding can be a very effective penalty if used correctly and consistently. You either remove the dog from the action or you remove yourself for a set time. The time-out should never be accompanied by harsh physical handling or verbal reprimands; otherwise you are entering risky territory again. The only punishment is supposed to be the loss of whatever the dog wants at that moment.
Make smart decisions for the benefit of your dog’s welfare and happiness, your relationship with your dog and your own peace of mind. Help your dog get it right rather than set them up to fail. Don’t let your dog wander into a swamp.
* Fearful or anxious dogs may “panic” when put in time-outs, in which case this form of punishment is not recommended. Also, if your dog is easily frustrated, you might have to proceed in smaller steps and make sure your dog can “win” often before bringing time-outs into the mix.