Punishment in dog training has been applied as a tool for correcting wrong behaviour or teaching new behaviour for many years. Throughout the years, different ”excuses” has been made in an attempt to make it seem more okay to beat or in other ways hurt your dog. Those excuses included:
- You were meant to show your dominance and take your role as alpha before the dog dominated you,
- You were told to correct wrong behaviour by adding pain, as it was believed that dogs and wolves would do this in the nature,
- Dogs were still considered wild animals and direct descendants from the wolves,
- You have been told to include all 4 part of the operant conditioning,
… and I could go on!
These theories all have one very important thing in common – they are wildly outdated!
Before you read on – think about this: Can you treat ADHD or anxiety in people by punishing them?
If not, why would you then hurt your dog?
Punishment and dominance in dogs
Punishment in dog training is largely based on the idea that wolves and wild dogs correct each other by biting. When observing behaviour in dogs and wolves (and many other wild animals) without much knowledge on their behaviour, it can certainly look like that as well. I therefore understand why some people believe this to be true. Especially with world famous people who go on global television and promote this kind of outdated behaviour and training.
However, the theory of dominance in dogs is outdated at best (Bradshaw, Blackwell & Casey, 2009). Dogs do not rely on correcting each other by applying pain. This is often their very last resort.
Dogs have a very complex body language. Long before they would turn to biting another individual, said individual would have had to ignore or overlook many other signs first. These warning signs can be as subtle as eye contact, yawning, licking or panting, and stiffening of the body. Later signs would include slightly raising of the lips to show the teeth, growling, and staring. Only if all of these signs have been ignored, the dog will feel forced to bite. Even then, a dog will often not actually bite but simply snap towards the other individual. This is how dogs communicate and ”correct” each other. Not by applying pain straight away.
A dog would not seek to dominate you either, and you should therefore not try to become the alpha ”before the dog does”. Dogs are sometimes observed to live in social groups, but they will not try to exert their dominance over you (Eaton, 2011).
”The greatest joy of living with a dog is being part of creating the most unique inter-specific relationship, wherein ”two are halves of one”. -Dr. Ian Dunbar (Eaton, 2011)
Punishment and operant conditioning
According to Skinner who came up with the theories of operant conditioning, learning of a new behaviour could include 4 different methods:
- Positive reinforcement
- Positive punishment
- Negative reinforcement
- Negative punishment
Briefly described, positive reinforcement is encouraging a behaviour by adding something pleasant. Negative reinforcement would encourage a behaviour by removing something unpleasant.
Positive punishment would discourage a behaviour by adding unpleasant or hurtful stimuli, and negative punishment would discourage a behaviour by removing or preventing access to something nice.
Some dog trainers believe that you should use all four quadrants of Skinner’s ideas. I not only believe, but have also found through experience, that you do not need all 4 – or at least not to the extent that some trainers will use!
In my world, you are allowed to say ”no” to your dog (which is in theory a kind of positive punishment), but it is not something that you should condition (meaning, you should not teach your dog that ”no” is an unpleasant thing by pairing it with pain). A dog is able to sense from the way that you say the word if you are happy or not. You do not need to hurt your dog EVER.
You can read more about what force-free and positive dog training really is by clicking on the button below.
Don't treat the symptoms. Treat the cause. Don't use positive punishment.
When our dogs behave poorly – this is often due to an underlying problem. Dogs are not just aggressive, they are not trying to be alpha, and they are not just generally trying to annoy you.
Often, behaviour such as lunging and barking at other dogs is due to some sort of anxiety. Low self-esteem can be the root of many behavioural problems in dogs. By only treating the symptoms (ie. The barking), you could potentially create a much bigger problem in the future.
Imagine this: You have a dog that barks and lunges every time another dog gets too close. I just told you before, that a dog’s behaviour is largely based on body language and warning signals. If you then only try to remove the symptoms (the barking) by threatening your dog with punishment, the dog might become scared to verbalise its insecurity. Next time another dog comes close, your dog will be too afraid to tell the dog to keep its distance. The other dog might therefore come even closer. What do you then think would happen? The dog cannot growl, it cannot bark – and the other dog is now much too close!
The last resort that your dog can turn to is biting!
If you instead focus on treating the cause of the behaviour rather than the symptoms, you might be able to avoid this all together and get a much happier and more confident dog.
How to boost a dog’s confidence without punishment
There are many simple ways that you can boost your dog’s confidence without the use of punishment. By implementing counter-conditioning with a few very simple games and exercises, your dog will come to realise that the world might not be as scary as it has otherwise believed.
Noise sensitive dogs can benefit from searching for treats in a box filled with different objects. It can be balls, plastic bottles, soda cans (with tape on the openings to make them safe!), curled-up paper or anything that might make a noise when pushed or fiddled around with. This way, your dog will come to realise that it can itself be in control of different noises, and that noises are not necessarily paired with unpleasant experiences but instead with food!
You can also teach your dog to hide its face in a cone. This can at first seem to weird and maybe even uncomfortable for the dog as it has to stick its head inside an object which makes it impossible for it to see what is going on around it. However, if you teach this with plenty of treats and let your dog do it in its own pace, the dog will come to realise, that the cone and the whole process of not being able to see is not scary at all! This will boost your dog’s confidence immensely.
Dog parkour can also help your dog gain more self-esteem as it discovers how much control it can have over its own body, and it regularly overcomes many different obstacles in different environments while having fun. By doing simple fun tricks and games with your dog, you can give your dog more and more self-esteem without the need for punishment as a tool! You can read more about tricks and dog parkour by clicking on one of the buttons below.
Bradshaw, J. W., Blackwell, E. J., & Casey, R. A. (2009). Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?. Journal of veterinary behavior, 4(3), 135-144.
Eaton, B. (2011). Dominance in Dogs. Dogwise Publishing.