"But isn't that pain?":Re-defining 'punishment'

A dog ALWAYS has free choice. A dog can ALWAYS choose all "bad" behaviors, including biting. No amount of training reward or punishment will ever remove a dog's opportunity to choose.

There are trainers who report that they can. These people are fools, at best, who really believe that such a cognitive overhaul is possible. These people are slick salesmen, at worst, telling people what they want to hear in the interest of selling something, even though it isn't actually true!

There are, in fact, NO GUARANTEES when it comes to dog behavior. Just as there are no guarantees when it comes to human behavior. We can all choose any behavior we are capable of at any moment.

What good training & management does is continually to make "good" choices extremely appealing, and "bad" choices unappealing. Dog ownership is risk management. We want to make it probable that a dog will choose to resolve conflict with "good" behaviors. Creating this likelihood is a deliberate choice on the part of the owner.

While behaviors can be deliberately chosen, EMOTIONS cannot. Emotions are reactions to stimuli. Neither we nor dogs can choose whether to receive hot or cold stimuli-- to sense "hot" or "cold". We can only choose behaviors that avoid hot or cold triggering reactions. Dogs cannot choose to be fearful or frustrated. We can only teach them to choose behaviors that avoid triggering those emotions. Through careful emotional intervention-- modeling neutral/positive emotions, building trusting relationships, and establishing unmistakeable communication, we can re-shape dogs beliefs & reactions to some degree, but we cannot cause a dog (or human) to DELIBERATELY CHOOSE a feeling.

PUNISHMENT = anything the dog doesn't like or want (not necessarily pain) -- decreases the frequency of the behavior preceding it (does NOT eliminate it)

Dog owners often THINK they are looking for punishers to institute "discipline". Nothing could be further from the truth. "Discipline", "structure", and "leadership" are all created by telling the dog what to START or CONTINUE doing. You want a dog to do good behaviors MORE. Only reward increases behaviors.

Punishments are only a small part of a communication picture, because they only tell a dog what to STOP doing. The dog has only a piece of the information. It's as if a trainer told a human: "Don't use punishment." The human is left thinking, "Well, what SHOULD I use?" Or if a coach tells an athlete, "Don't throw the ball like that." The athlete thinks, "Well, I can throw it 15 other ways. What way SHOULD I throw it?"

A punishment is most often thought of as pain, but trainers who can only identify pain or intimidation as a punisher don't completely understand canine cognition. Punishers diminish the frequency of the behavior that caused them because the dog does not like the result that behavior seems to cause.  This idea can be leveraged as a teaching tool by trainers who understand what they are doing.

For example, imagine a dog encounters a baseboard covered in Bitter Apple spray. Tasting & chewing the baseboard seems like a good idea because, well, dogs aren't humans. "I feel like chewing. That looks chewable." The baseboard punishes the dog by delivering a nasty taste, which makes the dog rethink his next chewing selection. (Well, unless the dog is one of the ones who LOVE Bitter Apple spray flavor.... Then the baseboard rewards the dog with chewing release AND a delicious taste!) The frequency of tasting the baseboard is likely to diminish over time.

Like reward, what any individual dog perceives as punishment varies by individual.
If your dog doesn't like to go out for walks, walks are actually punishment! Forcing treats into the mouth of a dog turning away from you is punishing. Going for car rides for a dog who gets carsick is a punishment.

Like reward, there is a scale of punishment from most aversive (Worst. Thing. Ever.) to least aversive (mildly irritating, distracting). The relative badness of a specific punishment can change depending on the dog and the situation.

For example, the proper use of a training collar on a walk in a wooded area dense with scent trails of wildlife is a radically different experience for the dog than the identical application during a walk through the mind-numbingly dull living room.  During a food- or play-training session, complying with various commands can actually be quite enjoyable for the dog. The same command requested mid-play session or mid-dash after a squirrel?  If successfully elicited, the exact same command can serve to punish!

Like reward, punishment also comes in 2 flavors: "positive", meaning something unpleasant STARTS happening, and "negative", meaning a good thing STOPS happening or is taken away.

Positive punishers: TASTING Bitter Apple spray, GETTING a collar correction, SMELLING citronella spray
Negative punishers: NO MORE treats, REMOVED from social interaction

Like reward, some punishments can be implemented by you, the handler, and some can come from the environment. Sneaky handlers (like me) will find ways (like Bitter Apple spray) to set up the environment to do the punishing so I can do the rewarding. (When I see a dog turn away from an object he has decided not to chew, I reward him with food and celebrate! Woo hoo!)

Absolutely unacceptable punishments -- can NEVER be humane under ANY circumstances:
These are all punishments owners have reported and I have read in a book.

  • NO yelling
  • NO hitting
  • NO spanking
  • NO kicking
  • NO hanging
  • NO throwing dog to ground
  • NO rubbing his nose in potty mistakes
  • NO filling holes from digging with water and submerging dog's head
  • NO scruff-shake
  • NO swatting with fly-swatters
  • NO beating with sticks
  • NO flicking dog in the nose
  • NO knee to the chest
  • NO ear pinches
  • NO chin grab & shake

I personally object to treating such a sensitive, intelligent creature with such abusive physical aggression. I frankly don't care if "they work" or if someone thinks such behavior "worked". These are simply never, ever acceptable. However, besides just being icky, there are many other good reasons not to use such attacks. The biggest risk in using punishments, besides the obvious humane issues, is the risk of ineffectiveness. The risk of not solving your problem AND creating another one at the same time.

Uh,,, yeah. Good job done, there. Like addressing the hole in your back yard by digging one hole for the dirt to fill the first. Well, I guess that worked when I look only at the first hole, but isn't the second one a bit of a problem? And, generally, whether holes or dog problems, the second one is BIGGER than the first. Hey, I have a good idea -- let's not do it that way.

Not saying it's 100% impossible for these to work. People assume the risk inherent in these activities, because there's always someone's Aunt Bertha who has a story about how she successfully addressed some behavior with one of these abusive punishments. It's possible that some other reason is why the dog stopping doing the bad behavior, and Aunt Bertha just THINKS it was her foolish punishment. If it DID work, it's a credit to the DOG's patience, tolerance, non-retaliatory nature, not to mention intellect, that the dog figured out what was going on.

These tactics are NOT effective or easy for the dog to understand. So things that are difficult to understand will NOT be understood by some dogs. Who will have been treated aggressively for no reason at all.

Why do these tactics so often fail?
These actions don't remotely resemble dog-dog social interactions. A human is shaped nothing like a dog, and though our actions will be interpreted through a canine filter, dogs don't think that humans are dogs.

To be effective, they often require an emotional intensity from the owner. This emotional intensity can interfere with a trusting relationship & break down loyalties. Punishing with hatefulness, even if you achieve your goal of reducing a certain behavior, has also displayed to the dog that you can be hateful. Punishing with an appearance of being out of control can come across as weakness. Weakness does not make you a reliable authority figure. It makes you likely to crumble when the going gets tough-- and in need of being lead by someone more rational (like me, thinks the leadership-motivated dog).

Dogs do punish each other, and sometimes they even use aggression to do so -- but they don't use ANY of these tactics. Because dogs do not develop using sticks and hits and knees to the chest, these behaviors demand more interpretation from a dog than a typical dog-dog punishment. A fair dog-dog punishment, starts with loads of warning, and gradually escalates. The sequences of events include a number of these elements that are difficult for humans to recognize: context (dog being punished did something)--a tiny pause, decreased overall body movement, change in eye contact, ear placement, growling, tail thrashing (wagging), hair stands up, breathing rate changes, increased speed of approach, specific angle of approach telegraphs intent of bite.

It may be because of the time required to "make your point" (a point which, frankly, I understand to be you saying "I'm. A. Jerk."), or because the brain is loaded with pain signals and juiced up with stress chemicals, leaving no processing circuits for learning, or another reason, but more often than not, with such techniques, the dog can have difficulty making the cause-effect connection, so cannot identify which behaviors to eliminate.

On the next repetition, the dog may have eliminated a behavior he thought was the cause behavior, which you don't notice, because you are paying attention to another behavior that he is still doing, so you punish anyway. From the dog's perspective, being punished after changing your behavior is a good way to break down trust and predictability. Trust affects a dog's motivation to comply, and her feelings about you, which affect her future interpretation of your future behaviors. A dog's ability to correctly interpret your behaviors is fundamental to clear communication. Communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship.

Acceptable punishments, to make this list, are ones that are highly effective because they center around removing access to things dogs find strongly motivating. This is called negative punishment, because a good thing (reward) is REMOVED, TAKEN AWAY, or STOPS happening. The word "negative", like the symbol we use, can be thought of as "take away". or strongly repulsive without being physically painful. From a dog's perspective, though, something like not getting to walk RIGHT NOW is extremely "painful" (aversive)!

Although owners feel safe about applying punishments that don't use pain, ineffective or mistimed punishments can really break down a relationship. In other words, you can damage your relationship with your dog using punishment WITHOUT using pain! This argument is yet another reason why consultation or classwork under the supervision of a reputable professional is SO important.

In no particular order:

  • time-out (60-90 seconds or until calm) **
  • enforced (not necessarily physical force) compliance with commands (60-90 seconds or until calm) **
  • moving dog away from other dogs or people **
  • moving people or other dogs away from dog
  • moving treat away from dog
  • moving dog away from treat
  • ignoring attention-seeking behavior
  • refusing to enter the room (staying behind closed door)
  • backing out of room & closing door once entered
  • refusing to open ANY door or gate
  • closing door or gate once open
  • refusing to touch a toy that isn't dropped
  • refusing to attach leash
  • removing leash (if inside) -- displays taking away the walk
  • returning to the house (if outside) -- display ending the walk
  • dropping toy and leaving room -- displays ending a play session
  • applying Bitter Apple & other taste aversion (bad-tasting) sprays to objects
  • applying scent aversion (bad-smelling) substances to environment

**These punishers may involve force but can be trained (using food rewards -- yes, EVEN during the punishment) to minimize or eliminate use of force, which I strongly recommend. The dog can and should be rewarded with food for compliance with these consequences. No, this will not cause mixed messages. Even during a punishment, the dog has the ability to choose to accept the punishment or be an uncooperative fool. We reward acceptance of the punishment.

Is there a risk of misinterpretation? Yes. To be effective, the punishment has to be exquisitely timed, and appropriately administered, THEN something rewardable must occur at some future time.

Coming home, finding chewed belongings, screaming like a banshee and throwing the dog in the crate for the rest of the night has done nothing for the dog, but you do it because it vents your frustration. Onto the dog. Who chewed things that smelled like YOU because he missed you. That is really wrong. Throwing some treats in the crate afterwards may ease your conscience, but it has NOT trained the dog in any way.


Mildly irritating punishments, though often ineffective at significantly reducing an entire behavior chain can often function effectively as distractors. However, for sensitive dogs (fearful or reactive), these may be viewed as stronger punishments, making them unsuitable as distractors for those dogs.

The key to using distractors effectively is just like using any other punisher effectively: having something to reward! Dogs (and humans) do things to get rewards. No reward= NOT TRAINING.

  • Making noise: dropping things, shake cans, air horns (I personally cringe for air horns, yuck.)
  • Squirt bottles**
  • Pokes**
  • Tickles**
  • Head-patting
  • Throwing things (toys, treats) near (NOT AT) dog (visually & olfactory distractraction)

**Application to rear of dog may cause dog to turn to investigate. If you are trying to get the dog to NOT focus on something else, this elicits something you can immediately reward. Can cause reactive dogs to turn & chomp.

A smart owner will hesitate before trying ANY of these techniques frequently recommended by books, DVDs, pet store personnel, TV shows, and other dog owners. In order to use these properly, a good deal of understanding is required. Simply trying one of these techniques does not make a problem behavior solution.  Even if you see the unwanted behavior stop instantly today, because use of an elicitor alone does not provide motivation for the alternate (desirable) behavior, you have only 1/2 a training program.  You are likely to re-visit the issue over and over.  This is NOT what learning looks like.

  • holding a grudge/withdrawing attention/ignoring non-attention seeking behavior
  • paw squeezing
  • holding mouth closed
  • Snappy Trainer & other scary booby traps
  • Ultrasonic bark deterrents
  • Spray Shield hand-held citronella spray can
  • Spray Commander (remote citronella spray collar)
  • citronella or shock bark collar
  • pressure
  • stress
  • "chin-bonk" for forced retrieve
  • choke collar
  • prong collar
  • shock collar
  • Headcollars (Halti, Gentle Leader, Snoot Loop), EZ-Walk harnesses, and Sporn harnesses
  • alpha rolls
  • noise (air horns for me -- too aversive!)

What makes these "risky" is that effectiveness depends entirely on their use to elicit a desired behavior.  Correct use of these tools is perceived by the dog as informational -- they provide unmistakeable, "loud" (stimulating) cues.  The clarity of the cue is created via timing, feedback markers (secondary and tertiary reinforcers & NRM=non-reward marker), and uniqueness of sensation.

Upon elicitation of correct behavior, dog is immediately marked "correct" (using whatever cue does that for that dog and trainer).  This communication of "correct" can be via food rewards or play rewards, but some dogs & handlers have such a fantastic relationship that they can work together for each other's enjoyment.  When a food or play reward is NOT used, but you do see long-term success, you can identify the reward (motivation) as social. Or, more commonly, when a food or play reward is not used, you see short-term success.

More often, you see short-term success with bewilderment at why these tools are "no longer working". 

Incorrect use of these tools can have the same effect as shouting at someone who doesn't know calculus to give you the derivative of sine. "I SAID, WHAT IS THE DERIVATIVE OF SINE?!?!" No matter how intense your voice, no matter how demanding you are, the person is NOT being dominant or stubborn, they simply have no idea how to respond to that.  You can try all manner of punishment (or even try bribing!), but you will not get the answer.  Furthermore, if you are the one being shouted at, how do you perceive the individual shouting a demand you are not entirely certain of how to respond to?  Eyebrow raise. Eyeroll.  Move slowly away from the crazy person.

If the dog doesn't KNOW which behavior caused the punishment, the dog CANNOT stop doing that behavior, no matter how much, how harsh, or how frequent the punishment. Persisting with punishment for a dog that doesn't not understand what behavior caused the punishment or what would make the punishment stop is what is most responsible for breakdown of communication, which breaks down trust and relationships, which often results in aggressive or defensive bites. A dog can also stop doing a behavior that SHE thinks is causing the punishment, even though YOU think you are punishing something else.

Determining if your dog is responding to a punishment is difficult. Is it not unpleasant enough? Or is it too unpleasant? Does he not know what behavior is being punished? Have I simply failed to teach him what he SHOULD do? Am I seeing an emotional reaction or a cognitive one? Is this deliberate or am I provoking him to beyond his limits?

Always start by identifying what you WANT the dog to do.  Defining & eliciting "the right answer" is the very essence of positive training.  Reactive punishment admits that YOU, the teacher, has failed. Sadly, it's the DOG who pays the price for YOUR failure.

MORE RECYCLING: A very similar version of this article appears on my own blog.  I thought it germaine (=relevant, I'm so chronically nerdy!) to the discussion taking place here about non-aversive punishment.  Visit my blog "that dog whisperer lady" at http://mswhisperer.blogspot.com

Earn extra money by referring people to Dunbar Academy. Become an affiliate today!