Helen Taylor, BSc, CCAB 

 

Professional Dog Behaviourist

 

 

 

...Helping your best friend to be even better...

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Why not just punish my dog for behaviours I don't like?

Why using punishment and negative methods may not only fail to work, but may actually make your dog's problems a whole lot worse...
Many owners almost instinctively use some negative means to "train" their dogs in the belief that this will help to encourage the dog to follow commands, behave better or resolve behavioural problems. In reality, it is relatively easy to intimidate a dog into suppressing a behaviour that we don't like. However, there are often undesirable and often far-reaching consequences to doing so.
And this is not just a matter of one opinion against another. A weight of scientific evidence over the past 20 years supports this, and none of the major welfare organisations, veterinary bodies or insurance companies now condone anything other than reward-based methods, and no qualified behaviourist will use punitive methods because of these dangers. Use of reward-based methods does not mean that there are never any negative consequences for getting it wrong, just that these negative consequences should remove of or lack of a reward, rather than be actively unpleasant. 


Example: Loose-lead walking. Whenever the dog pulls (ie tightens the lead), stopping walking immediately (or walking backwards) while rewarding him for walking on a loose lead (initially with treats but ultimately with progress where he wants to go) will show him that when the lead is tight on his neck, progress towards his goal (eg the lamppost he wants to sniff, a person or dog he wants to greet or progress towards the entrance to the field) stops or, worse, gets further away. However, when the lead is loose, he gets progress AND possibly a food treat! For most dogs it is usually only a matter of time and consistency before he learns that it's in his interests to keep the lead slack. On the other hand, jerking the lead not only probably confuses your dog (because, in order to jerk a lead it is necessary to let it go momentarily slack immediately beforehand) and is probably painful or at least highly unpleasant. Where there is pain there is the potential for forming negative associations. But those negative associations probably won't be with pulling on the lead (remember, the lead was loose immediately before the jerk) but it MIGHT be with something else in the environment (perhaps the person or dog he was pulling towards) and as a result lead jerks, choke chains and slip leads are very often contributory factors in the development of aggression towards unfamiliar people or other dogs. 


With all training, learning happens most quickly and accurately if "getting it wrong" is avoided as much as possible, while getting it right is made rewarding. 


1. Due to absence of language skills and the slightly different way that a dog's mind learns and forms associations, dogs often do not make the intended association between deed and punishment and are likely to be confused as to why their owner has become "aggressive" - even if the reason for the punishment seems obvious to the owner. Worse still, dogs very often form a negative association with the wrong thing and thus may feel an increased fear (and therefore, potentially, aggression) towards that thing in future.
2. Almost all aggression has its roots in fear. Using methods that instil fear or anxiety, or inflict pain often result in some form of (further) aggressive defensive behaviour from the dog through fear and feeling under threat. Aggression may or may not be directed to the source of the punishment, and is often directed to something the dog has learned to associate with the punishment, like the presence of another dog or a child, rather than with their "misdeed".
3. Using punishment or negative means almost always has negative impact on owner-dog relationship and the bond of trust.
4. If a dog learns that he cannot trust his own owner, he is much more likely to be suspicious and afraid of other people.
5. Human timing is usually not good enough - punishment usually arrives (just) after dog has stopped actually exhibiting the behaviour.
6. Punishing a dog for exhibiting a behaviour does nothing to address its cause. If timing IS correct, it may cause a behaviour to be suppressed but, if the root cause has not been addressed, problems usually re-emerge - sometimes in another (and almost always more serious) form.
7. Punishing or reprimanding a dog does nothing to show him what behaviour you actually WANT him to do.
8. Dogs are not capable of complex emotions such as guilt. Owners that use negative methods almost universally believe that their dog "knows he has done wrong". A dog's apparent "guilty" look is merely a manifestation of the dog's anxiety in response to the owner's aggressive body language (or even a learned pattern that aggression often follows a certain behaviour), and an attempt to appease and prevent further aggression. A recent scientific study showed that dogs are most likely to be assessed by the owners as looking "guilty" when the owner believed that they had committed the "crime" but when, in fact, they had not.
9. The more times a behaviour (any behaviour) is repeated the more likely it is to be repeated in future. This is a basic fact of learning theory and is the basis of most training. Therefore, allowing a dog to do a behaviour we do not want him to do (whether or not he is punished) may actually result in the behaviour becoming more ingrained - even if he is also punished for it. 
10. A dog that is always being "nagged" or scolded may simply learn to tune this out and will probably not try to please the owner. This effect is even more pronounced if the dog's name is used in association with negative training. 
11. If part of a dog's motivation for doing or not doing a behaviour is caused by anxiety over negative consequences (eg his owner might be cross), the resulting "learning" will not be as reliable as when the dog learns to control his own behaviour to try and earn something good. 
12. A recent study has shown that owner reprimands and discipline increases a dog's blood cortisol levels (a hormone that rises as a result of increased stress), while interacting using more "affiliative" behaviour (cooperative, praising) actually decreases it. 
13. Punishment is not a reliable means of stopping a behaviour from being repeated in the future. If it were, the 70% of prison inmates that reoffend after their release would not do so, nor would motorists who receive a speeding ticket. With dogs, this is even worse as we cannot explain to them why they have been punished! 
14. Punishment is innately rewarding to the punisher (although few people will admit this to themselves) and punishers are likely to escalate punishments over time - leading to ever increasing chance of behaviour problems developing. Most people don't like to admit this to themselves as it makes them uncomfortable, but it is unfortunately true. 
15. Punishing a dog for growling (which is a warning of further aggression if the warning is not heeded) or for showing other warning signs often leads to dogs skipping the warning step and going straight to more decisive aggression ("biting without warning"). 
16. Most dogs or people will - sooner or later - use aggression to protect themselves if they feel threatened or are under attack. Using punishment inevitably pushes your dog a few rungs further up the "Ladder of Aggression". 
17. If the wrong behaviour is met by a negative response the dog will feel anxious (because, by nature, most dogs want to please). If this is done habitually, he may become frightened to try anything for fear of getting it wrong. In contrast, dogs that are trained using reward-based methods really want to get it right to earn a reward and will try hard to do so. This is unwillingness to try is called Learned Helplessness and makes training much harder in future as fewer behaviours are offered (through fear of the possible consequences if the wrong behaviour is offered) in any given situation.
18. Treating aggression with punishment and aggressive interventions often results in aggression being redirected onto something or someone else - often an easier target- the owner, a child, another animal - or something in the environment at the time.
19. Dogs, like people, learn and remember best when they are relaxed, confident and in the mood to learn. A dog that is anxious and confused is not a good pupil and even moderate anxiety can make a marked difference to the amount a dog learns from a session. 
20. Dogs and people belong to different species. While dogs do sometimes use "corrections" with puppies, the vast majority of their communication and teaching is non-aggressive. Plus, as human beings, we do not "speak dog" and trying to speak a language we don't understand is very dangerous and our "words" can easily be misunderstood by the dog. There are far more effective ways of teaching your dog to behave as you would wish than by "dominating" them.
Whether a dog is showing aggression, or simply not obeying his owner, there are much safer and more effective ways of dealing with problems than using punishment. 
Example: hitting or shouting at a dog for attacking or lunging aggressively at another dog. Normally, the owner's aggression arrives after the dog has finished lunging at the other dog (because, while the aggression is actually being displayed, most owners are - quite rightly - preoccupied with ending the incident). Although the lesson the owner is trying to teach seems obvious to them, the most likely lesson the dog will learn is that the presence of another dog results in his owner getting aggressive. As the original cause of the dog's aggression (most commonly fear-related in the first place) has not been addressed, the dog now has even greater motivation to fear other dogs and try to keep them away, meaning that aggression is likely to increase, rather than decrease. Moreover, the dog now also trusts his owner less, as he will not understand why his owner suddenly became "aggressive" instead of protecting him from a perceived threat. As the punishment is not having the desired effect, the owner starts punishing more and more harshly in an attempt to "teach the dog a lesson", "show him who's boss" or simply to try and stop the behaviour, and the dog becomes progressively more and more keen to get rid of whatever prompts this horrible behaviour in his owner. 

References
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