Must We Punish Our Dog?

We humans have to admit that we ask a lot of our dogs. Not that they cannot to adapt to our environment – they are certainly able to, and get much out of doing so – but in exchange for the comforts of living with us we often ask them to inhibit, forget or redirect most of their spontaneous and instinctive behaviors.

Why? Because who is the owner who wishes to hear his dog bark for a yes or no, who wants his dog not to come when called even if he’s on a rabbit track, who wants his dog to growl or snap when disturbed by somebody, who wishes to be welcomed by a jumper, to constantly refill holes in the garden, and to hear his dog growling to keep his bone or food?

Most of the behaviors we want our dogs to adopt (or stop) in order to make them good companions, are behaviors that simply aren’t natural to dogs, and would never occur spontaneously.

To control or inhibit those behaviors we humans consider undesirable, most of people are only aware of how to use authority and force as the way to communicate and make their dog understand that a given behavior is neither expected nor exceptable and that he’d better forget it.
I am fond of positive and dog friendly methods, especially clicker training, and many skeptics say to me: “But we cannot always reward dogs! We have to punish them sometimes!”

Well, is it really realistic to think that we can train our dogs without using reprimands?

One of the most important lessons of operant conditioning teaches us that there are three possible consequences for one voluntary action, and of course the unpleasant consequence is part of the deal. It is belongs to the learning process. So as a result, it is not unrealistic to think that reprimand has an inhibiting effect on a given behavior.

On the other hand, what we should be aware of is the existence of two kinds of unpleasant consequences commonly called negative punishment and positive punishment.

Positive punishment is the most widespread. This is the kind of punishment that comes up to one’s mind when somebody is feeling threatened or attacked (physically or emotionally).  

On the other hand, negative punishment is not as popular and is scarcely used, probably because it does not appeal to the punisher’s emotional reactivity. This kind of punishment teaches the other that his behavior makes him lose something he likes when adopt one type of behavior. We could define it as the withdrawal of a pleasant stimulus.  

Example of positive punishment: I wish to play with my owner who has a ball in his hand, so I jump with joy and excitement, but I realize that when doing so, what I get is a knee punching badly my chest and it hurts. So I’ll stop jumping.

Example of negative punishment: I wish to play with my owner who has a ball in his hand, so I jump with joy and excitement, but I realize that when doing so, the ball disappears and eventually the game too.  Not a good idea to jump, so I’ll stop and get to play the game!

In the first example, we can obtain a decrease in the dog jumping, but we might also at the same time diminish the dog’s motivation for the game if by any chance he still wants to play. What we also get as a result is a dog that may also get scared of his owner and probably avoid him in that circumstance and perhaps others.

In the second example, we can also obtain a decrease in the dog jumping if we respond at the right time. It’s all about timing. Moreover, we might obtain as well, a dog that keeps his motivation for the game and make him aware of the consequences of his jumping without making him feel bad about his owner.

Negative punishment allows the dog to know which behavior makes him lose what he wants to obtain. It also teaches him pay attention to his environment and actions.

On the opposite, positive punishment teaches the dog to become scared of his own spontaneity and to be suspicious towards his environment and everything related to it.

Do we have to throw out punishment altogether?

Reprimands help our dogs get the point of the things they have to learn from the environment, this is just true.

It is sometimes useful that our dogs mistrust the consequence of their behavior and that they think twice before acting.

But the real question is the following one: do I want to make a behavior disappear for good, with all its emotional and mental communications, or do I just want to get rid of this particular way my dog uses this behavior to obtain what he wants?

In other words, when we interact with our dogs, do we want to reprimand the way they interact or the interaction itself?

So the question may not be about whether or not to punish, but about our comprehension and definition of the reprimand, and about our goals and the honesty of our intentions.

Obviously, neither positive nor negative reprimand will teach a dog how to behave to get something. It only lessens or stops behavior.  The only strength of a reprimand lies in the fact that the dog will avoid repeating a behavior. Positive reinforcement teaches which behavior is gratifying and increases motivation.

Just be very aware of what you reward. Rewards surely remain the key to a healthy communication and learning.

Catherine Collignon
Responsable d’ANIMALIN
Présidente du MFEC