Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

There is a bit of a divide in the dog training industry about the place of punishment in the training of dogs. It is seen as a dirty word by many; one with strong negative connotations. You may expect this article to be a whole range of reasons why punishment is bad and why you should never use them. You would be wrong.

I’m not here to push an agenda by telling you why you should or shouldn’t use punishment in your training (though I do have my personal training opinions) but rather explain the principle of punishment and why it may not work when training your dog, especially when you think it should.

When you look up punishment in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you will find some daunting definitions.

Definition of PUNISHMENT

1:the act of punishing

2a :suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution

b :a penalty inflicted on an offender through judicial procedure

3:severe, rough, or disastrous treatment

Reading the above definitions, you can see why there is an anti-punishment movement within the dog training world. No one wants to intentionally cause suffering or pain to their dog, nor do they want to treat their dog roughly. And that is a very reasonable and fair position for any dog owner and lover.

Definition 2b is probably the most accurate when it comes to dog training. Punishment is a penalty, or negative consequence, experienced by the dog as a result of its behaviour. Contrary to common belief, punishment in dog training does not need to be rough or painful to be effective . It just needs to be intolerable; a consequence the dog does not wish to endure in the future.

As an example, which we can all relate to (well, almost all – which I will reference later), is static shock when you touch something. If I received a static shock every time I picked up a piece of chocolate I would probably reconsider what the advantage of eating that piece of chocolate was. The static shock isn’t painful to me; it is a surprise and somewhat uncomfortable, and something I would not want to endure every time I picked up a piece of chocolate, thereby resulting in an effective punishment for myself. It has decreased the likelihood of me picking up chocolate in the future.

Punishment also doesn’t always need to be something that is applied to the dog; it can also be something that is removed. Removing or withholding attention, a treat, or refusing to throw their ball can also be punishing to your dog.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a punishment is, we need to understand why punishing a dog sometimes isn’t effective. We can’t deny it is sometimes effective as we see it in everyday life. A dog runs and jumps over a hedge into a rose bush. That dog is punished and learns that jumping over that bush results in rose thorns (pain), which results in the dog choosing to no longer jump over that bush, and perhaps view their environment a little better in future. But why isn’t it always effective?

There are may steps involved in correctly punishing a dog. If one of the steps in missing or implemented incorrectly, you will likely have the result of a failed punishment.

Below are some reasons your punishment is not working  for you and your dog.

1. Timing

Dogs have a small window of time they can make connections between their behaviour and a consequence, be it positive or negative. For most, it is under 5 seconds. If a dog jumped over a hedge into a rose bush but didn’t feel any pain from the thorns until after it had walked away and was sniffing something else, it would not make the connection between the bush and the pain.

If your dog steals food from the kitchen bench, you find the crumb trails 30 seconds later when you walk back into the kitchen and administer a punishment in that moment, your dog will a) not understand that the punishment was from stealing food off the bench 30 seconds earlier, and b) potentially make a connection between what they are currently doing and the punishment, which could be a desired behaviour like lying calmly on their bed (where they took their stolen goods to consume).

2. Is it a punishment?

Referring back to my earlier comment about the static shock, while I find the sensation of a static shock unpleasant and something I wish to avoid, others may find the sensation tolerable and therefore continue to eat the chocolate. If your dog doesn’t find the punishment you have administered intolerable, you are not likely to see a change in behaviour. A punishment is something that decreases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated. If your dog is still repeating the behaviour then chances are the punishment you were using was not appropriate for your dog. Again the punishment does not have to be painful to be effective. My cat who once nuzzled my face at 5am did not want to tolerate a blow of air to her face. While she found this punishment intolerable, my dog would just lick the air, or my face, as a result.

3. Intensity

With many types of punishment, there are levels of intensity to choose from. As an example to follow on from the static shock example, two of the most controversial tools is the remote training collar and electronic anti-bark collar (and the electronic boundary fence collars). Now, before we all freak out at the fact the collar is even being discussed (after all, some countries have actually banned the use of these training tools), I want to remind you this article is simply about the concept of punishment and this collar is actually a really good tool to use in this example as it has many levels within the collar’s settings, unlike other punishments which require the handler to determine and administer the correct intensity themselves.

Some of the collars have 100 setting levels within the collar and for good reason. When using any tool for punishment, the aim is not to cause pain but a sensation that is intolerable. For some dogs, the level they may find intolerable is 30, where other dogs may not even feel level 30. For these dogs, maybe level 50, or even 80, is the point at which they find the sensation intolerable. And for obvious reasons, you would not use the collar at level 50 on the dog that found level 30 intolerable. Not ensuring the level of any punishment is suitable for the dog you are working with is unfair, unethical and most likely ineffective in training.

4. Arousal

The intensity of a punishment is important in itself but the intensity may vary depending on the arousal level of your dog. Arousal and stress levels can impact a dog’s response to punishment. If a dog-reactive dog were to see another dog 50m away while out walking, it may show a small level of arousal. At this point you may not even need to use a punishment as they may not be exhibiting an undesired behaviour or their behaviour may be such that commanding alternate behaviours is enough to change the dog’s mindset and prevent the undesired behaviour by teaching new ways to behave when they see a dog. However, if you happen to come upon a dog 2 metres away as you turn a street corner, the arousal level of the dog may jump suddenly resulting in undesired behaviour (lunging, aggression) at which point giving an alternate command may be completely useless. In this moment a punishment given needs to be at an intensity that the dog finds intolerable if you have any hope of decreasing the likelihood of the undesired behaviour being repeated next time. If you can’t administer a suitable punishment in this moment, it would be best to just get out of there to lower your dog’s level of arousal and take that moment as a learning experience for next time.

5. Balanced against the competing motivator

Any sight-hound or prey-driven dog owner would tell you it is nearly impossible to prevent their dog from chasing after a rabbit or bird while on a walk. The motivation to chasing the prey animal outweighs any punishment or reinforcement the owner can administer (that they have tried so far). If you are ever going to teach your dog to stop chasing something, motivation to AVOID the punishment MUST outweigh the motivation to chase the animal (along with motivation to receive the anticipated reinforcement for choosing not to chase). If your punishments and rewards aren’t more motivating than the competing motivator, then your training program with your dog will not likely succeed.

6. Anger

Your dog reacts to another dog walking across the road while out on a walk. You react with anger, yelling at the dog while tugging on its collar. You are likely doing this for one or more reasons.
a) You want the owner of the other dog to see that you do not condone your dog’s behaviour.
b) You think your dog understands what you are saying and why you are angry, and will know better for next time.
c) It makes you feel better to tell your dog off for its undesired behaviour (you receive reinforcement for your behaviour).
I can tell you right now that this is not effective punishment. It is simply your way of showing your dog you are emotionally unstable and something to be wary of. Using this method as a form of punishment won’t work.

7. Inconsistency

You can administer all the highest intensity punishments in the world but if you aren’t consistent your punishment won’t work, and will likely confuse your dog. If your dog gets on the couch when you are home and you punish your dog it may learn not to get on the couch, however if your dog jumps up when you aren’t looking, they will not receive a consistent punishment for getting on the couch, therefore the dog learns there is no reason not to get on the couch, or they just learn they need to get off the couch when they hear you coming.

8. Reinforcement

Whenever punishment is involved in training, reinforcement should not be left out (most of the time). If your dog keeps getting up on the couch and you want to stop this behaviour, punishing the dog every time it gets on the couch without telling the dog where it should lie instead and reinforcing that behaviour will not get you the result you want. What is the motivation to getting on the couch? If he can’t get on the couch where can he go that will give him the same or greater reinforcement? Teaching your dog the desired behaviours and reinforcing those will speed up your training modification process and will be a much fairer way of training your dog.

We have spoken a lot about punishment but I want to reiterate the importance of REINFORCEMENT in dog training.


Dr Sophia Yin teaching a dog to walk to heel using treats as positive reinfrocement.

Prevention is better than a cure. If you teach your dog the behaviours you want from them from day one, you are less likely to need to incorporate punishments into your training. If you teach a solid recall from day ONE with your dog, it will become an ingrained behaviour and you will likely not need to correct for not coming back, because they always come back. If you teach your dog to walk nicely on a lead from puppyhood, you are less likely to need to incorporate punishments into your training because they have learned correct behaviour from the beginning.



Why am I banging on about reinforcement in a punishment blog?

Let’s face it. Punishment is effective.

Your dog exhibits an undesired behaviour, you administer an effective punishment, your dog stops the behaviour.

You are reinforced for administering the punishment to your dog.

Reinforcement increases your likelihood of repeating a behaviour.

Therefore: You are more likely to use punishment in the future, because you got the result you wanted.

Some people get so caught up in feeling good from punishing their dog that they forget to incorporate reinforcement into the dog’s life. As I said above, REINFORCEMENT is the FOUNDATION of ALL good DOG TRAINING. If you aren’t including positive reinforcement into your dog training, you are not doing right by your dog.

If you are not sure how to fairly and responsibly incorporate punishment into your training program, speak with a professional dog trainer who has experience in using punishment techniques in training. Not all trainers choose to use punishment in their training, and not all trainers choose to use positive reinforcement in their training. It is important to find a trainer who work with you and your dog using techniques you are comfortable with and fully understand. If it doesn’t feel right, or you aren’t getting the results you want, get another opinion.

Happy Training!

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