Positive vs. Punitive Training Techniques: What each achieves and what we can learn about ourselves from the discussion.

I once had the honor of meeting the British ex-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, at a university event.  I was described by the president of the university as an animal behaviorist to which Prime Minister Thatcher replied, “Ah yes, behavior!  That’s what it’s all about really.”  And she was right on the mark, her wit sharpened by years of debate on the floor of the House of Commons. Her business was dealing with the behavior and misbehavior of people in her own country and abroad.  


My business is dealing with the behavior and misbehavior of other animal species, in particular, dogs, cats, and horses, and there are many parallels to be drawn.


One of the current controversies is to whether the punitive methods of dog training, popularized by William Koehler in the 1960s and a sea of dog trainers who have since adopted his methods, offer any advantages over more benign training and, indeed, whether they are even humane.  


On the other side of the coin are “positive”, non-punitive training methods using such techniques as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. In the context of positive dog training, these techniques are often incorporated into a life style adjustment program including elements such as increasing exercise, attending to diet, instilling true leadership, and environmental enrichment.  


Training that involves physical punishment – a spare the rod and spoil the child type approach – is ubiquitous and has been popularized recently by television shows.  It is a case of the speed of the hand deceives the eye and the seemingly instantaneous results can be impressive. Unfortunately, practitioners have not properly studied the long-term results and the scientific evidence is that the use of these techniques is associated with an overall increase in the incidence of behavior problems.  


“Positive” training, on the other hand, does not always produce such instantaneously gratifying results but its long-term effect is beneficial in reducing the instance of problems and increasing the bond between the pet and its owner.  The general principles learned here can be applied to other animal species also, including cats and horses and, probably, to humans.  


Two Nobel Prize winners independently stated words to the effect that physical punishment teaches an animal nothing except how to avoid that punishment; but trainers who use such harsh methods believe that punishment is necessary to assure a reliable response.  They often criticize positive trainers saying that the animals they trained will only work for food and that the omission of punishment is a recipe for disaster.  What they fail to realize is the way in which reward can be used to produce a consistent response and also the fact that positive trainers use a technique known as negative punishment, which in essence is withholding.  Bearing in mind the amazing results that can achieved training dolphins in captivity using a clicker and a bucket of fish or the extraordinary feats that can be trained in dogs by using positive methods only, I think that punitive trainers should reexamine their techniques, themselves learn some new tricks, and employ more objective follow up methods.


Why the polarization has occurred in arguments for and against these two different approaches is not absolutely clear but may have something to do with human nature.  Some people, it seems, are always in need of instant gratifications and punitive training methods have the edge there.  Some people even believe that physical punishment of children is a necessary disciplinary measure while others champion legislation that outlaws it.  The dichotomy may be explicable on the basis of individuals’ own early experiences and their need for ultimate control.  


One thing is for sure, if you use punishment to achieve an end, the threat of punishment and its occasional use will be necessary long-term to maintain any gains that appear to have been made.  Do your research before training your dog.  Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to deciding on which training method is best.

Dr. Dodman's latest book, The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman's Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend is available at Amazon.com.