TOP 8 PUNISHMENT MISTAKES IN DOG TRAINING

TOP 8 PUNISHMENT MISTAKES IN DOG TRAINING

Once upon a time, punishment was commonplace in the raising and training of dogs. A reading of The Koehler Method of Dog Training by William Koehler shows us not only that punishment was commonplace but that it was totally acceptable to use extremely harsh punishment. Today, the pendulum has completely swung the other way and even the mention of word punishment can lead to a “cancel culture” attack. It has become politically correct in some circles to never even say “No” to a dog. Some trainers and activist groups argue that the use of punishment is inhumane, abusive, outdated and unnecessary, implying that it can be replaced with reward-based training. These debates can be very misleading because the fact of the matter is that all dog training includes the use of punishment. Yes, even those claiming to be “Positive” or “Force-Free” are still using punishment, they just have various limitations on what tools or techniques they deem ethical. So, before diving into more details, let’s be sure we are on the same page regarding what is meant by the word punishment. 

 

“How do we define punishment?” 

 

Basically, anything that stops/reduces a behavior, enforces a behavior or would be considered a negative consequence will be included in our definition of punishment. This includes but is not limited to: 

  • Anything that stops, or is intended to stop, a behavior. 
  • Anything that causes, or is intended to cause, mental, emotional or physical discomfort. 
  • Any use of intimidation. 
  • Any use of force or pressure.
  • Any use of tools for physical leverage. 
  • Anything perceived by the dog as negative or unwanted. 
  • Anything that the dog would prefer to avoid. 

For those who understand Operant Conditioning, all of the quadrants, other than positive reinforcement, will be considered punishment. That means positive punishment, negative punishment and negative reinforcement will all fall under the umbrella of punishment. Basically, if you use a leash, if you withhold or remove rewards, if you raise your voice or shake a can of pennies, if you use timeouts, if you use a hard stare, if you use dominant/assertive body language, if you do anything that is not 100% “positive” you are probably using punishment. 

 

I could literally write an entire book on the controversy surrounding punishment in the dog training industry but let’s just accept the fact that punishment is here to stay, it will never go away, it will never be “outdated” and the most sensible, humane thing to do is to avoid making punishment mistakes. Fair enough? Ok, below are my top eight punishment mistakes: 

 

  1. Wrong Intensity
  2. Poor Timing 
  3. Lack of Consistency 
  4. Lack of Balance
  5. Lack of Follow Through 
  6. Lack of Emotion Control 
  7. Lack of Holistic Perspective 
  8. Attempted or Proclaimed Nonexistence 

Let’s take a look at each of these mistakes in more detail:

 

Mistake #1 – Wrong Intensity

 

There are three possible intensities of punishment: 
 

  1. Too High: This is called “Over Correcting” and could be considered abusive if done intentionally or repeatedly. Too high an intensity, while it may stop the unwanted behavior quickly, may also have negative side effects such as fear, panic, anxiety, mistrust, rage, redirected or defensive aggression, etc. The purpose for using high-intensity punishment is to achieve long lasting results very quickly, instantly in some cases. However, when the intensity is too high, the negative side effects can also be immediate and long lasting. Generally speaking, most people only make this mistake by accident, usually when they are upset and lose their temper. When calmer minds prevail, this mistake rarely happens. (See: Lack of Emotion Control below) 
  2. Too Low: This is called “Under Correcting” or “Nagging” and it can also have negative fallout by causing frustration, agitation, overstimulation, redirected or defensive aggression, etc. When the intensity is too low, it will do nothing at all to stop the unwanted behavior. Punishment that is too low in intensity will likely desensitize the dog to punishment, leading to harsher and harsher treatments that still don’t work. Worse still, it may actually intensify the dog’s unwanted behavior. For example: What I commonly see is dogs that are “numb” or “callus” to pulling on the leash (regardless of prong collars, gentle leaders or whatever) due to loving owners whose corrections are simply too low in intensity. We also see dogs that are raging at the end of the leash, lashing out at the world or biting their owners due to these weak attempts at punishment. So, make no mistake, under-correcting is not at all harmless. 
  3. Just Right: The perfect intensity will be in what’s called the “Goldilocks” zone because it’s just right. It gets the point across and that’s it, no more, no less. There should be no lingering fear, no mistrust, no negotiating, no nagging, just a quick correction of some sort and then move on. In some cases, you might even reward the dog after the correction, as a thank you for accepting the correction or a way of saying, “I’m not mad at you, I just don’t want you to do that behavior.” The obvious question that must be asked is, “What’s the perfect intensity for this dog, in this scenario, at this precise moment?” This, of course, is the least common form of punishment we see because it takes some skill and there is an art to it. If people got this right, my phone would ring a lot less often. 

Choosing an intensity starts with choosing a type of punishment…verbal reprimand, leash correction, squirt bottle, etc. The intensity can also be adjusted by the way in which any type of punishment is being used. For example: a firm tone vs shouting, a mild leash pop vs a hard yank, a light mist of water vs a direct stream, etc.  

 

It is critical to pay close attention to the dog’s response and adjust accordingly. We tend to assume the dog will feel the same as we would but that’s often not the case. For example: Most people think shaking a can full of pennies is a benign punishment but I’ve seen dogs that have been extremely traumatized by that technique. Those same dogs were perfectly fine with leash corrections, which most people would assume to be the harsher punishment. It’s the dog’s perception that matters, so it’s our job to pay attention. 

 

Mistake #2 – Poor Timing

 

Timing is everything! If dogs are punished with poor timing, they will not understand why they are being punished, hence the punishment will not stop the unwanted behavior. In fact, it may increase the unwanted behavior or create a whole new batch of negative side effects or fallout. 

 

Four common timing mistakes: 

  1. Delayed: Punishment will be associated with whatever immediately preceded it. That means that any retroactive punishment, even a delay of a couple seconds, can be problematic. For example: The dog was barking at something in the backyard but then heard you open the door and started to run towards you. Punishment at that moment will likely be associated with the door opening, coming to you or you coming outside. Now you may have a dog that still barks but doesn’t come when called or acts afraid when you come into the yard. Delays can be problematic for other reasons such as Competing Reinforcement. For example: Punishing a dog that’s been counter surfing successfully will be less effective than punishment applied at the moment his paws touch the counter. Achieving the food is competing with avoiding the punishment (Positive Reinforcement is competing with Negative Reinforcement). Another problem with delays is emotional escalation. For example: Punishing an aggressive dog that is already going ballistic will be much less effective than punishment at the first sign of aggressive intent. Proper timing will assure the dog understands the consequence and reduce the need for intense corrections. 
  2. Prolonged: Even though it may have started on time, punishment that continues on after the unwanted behavior has stopped is very similar to delayed punishment. This happens frequently because people may still be mad at the dog seconds or minutes later. I had a neighbor who didn’t walk his dog for a week as punishment for chewing up the couch! That’s ludicrous, right? This is one of many reasons I am not a believer in “timeouts” as a punishment for dogs. Punishment should be short and precise.  
  3. Premature: Using punishment prematurely, such as when first building a relationship with a dog or during the Acquisition Phase of training is another example of poor timing. The dog may need to simply hang out with you, get some treats from you, sniff you, be comfortable being touched by you, etc. before doing any training at all, let alone punishing the dog. 
  4. Unnecessary: Poor timing can also mean it is simply just not the right time to use punishment at all. There are many other ways to alter behavior such as redirection, counter-conditioning, desensitization, extinction, socialization, proper exercise, biological fulfillment, etc. There are many factors to consider before jumping to punishment when dealing with behavior modification in dogs. (See: Lack of Balance below.)

Mistake #3 – Lack of Consistency 

 

Dogs can’t follow rules that change from day to day or moment to moment. For example: One day the dog is cuddling on the couch with his owner, the next day they’re shouting, “Off, off, off!” One minute the dog is pulling on the leash and the owner is dragging behind as if this is a perfectly fine way to walk. The next minute they’re yanking the leash and shouting, “No pull, easy, heel, heel, HEEL!!!!” One person comes home and pets the dog for jumping up on them saying, “I don’t mind, I don’t have to bend over this way.” The next person comes home and shouts “No, down, off, no jump!” while kneeing the dog in the chest. Dogs can’t be well-trained under such arbitrary, moody behavior from humans. 

 

If corrections are made inconsistently the dog will become confused, stressed or conflicted in some way. If dogs are unaware of why punishments are happening, they will continue the unwanted behavior and may develop a generalized fear or mistrust of the handler…or people in general. On the other hand, even if the dog has some idea why the punishment is happening, if it doesn’t happen consistently, he may think he has a good chance of getting away with the bad behavior. 

 

We must assume the unwanted behavior is rewarding to the dog in some way, otherwise he wouldn’t do it, right? So, much like we saw with poor timing, inconsistency can also create Competing Reinforcement or what I call the “It’s worth it” factor. My clients often call this a “stubborn” dog but I find most dogs are not stubborn once the rules are made clear consistently.  

 

Mistake #4 – Lack of Balance 

 

Another mistake is to use punishment too frequently or without being balanced with positive reinforcement. Even if your timing is impeccable, the intensity is perfect and you are totally consistent in your use of punishment, the dog may still be miserable if that’s all you do!  This is why I am such an advocate for “Balanced” dog training

 

If the dog’s sole motivation is to avoid punishment, then you can expect a lack of enthusiasm towards training, towards the handler and possibly towards people in general. Dogs trained this way may become defensively aggressive. They may also become depressed, fearful and shut down. Sometimes people mistakenly think the dog is simply being calm but a basic study of canine body language tells us otherwise. Not moving, moving slowly, turning away, avoiding eye contact, lowered head, tail or body posture are “Appeasement Behaviors.” Other terms you may hear used for this sort of body language are Passive Submission, Calming Signals, Displacement Behaviors, Deference Behaviors, Negotiation Signals or Stress Signs. Dogs display these behaviors in response to a perceived threat as a way to avoid confrontation or turn off aggression. So, just because the dog is being still or moving slowly doesn’t mean he’s calm. Calm body language is quite different…soft eye contact, neutral tail, relaxed ear and body posture, etc.  

 

“What’s the big deal? Isn’t punishment supposed to be unpleasant? Don’t you want the dog to submit?” 

 

To be clear, a moment of appeasement in response to a punishment is to be expected. However, if the dog is showing this sort of body language for a prolonged period after a punishment or as a general response to your presence, he is not being calm, he’s being cautious and untrusting. This sort of negative fallout is easily avoided with “Balanced” training. 

 

By “Balanced” I mean that the dog is being trained with “Positive” training to the extent that it gets results, the situation is being looked at holistically and punishment is used fairly and only after reasonable consideration of alternatives. (See: Lack of Holistic Perspectives below)

 

CONSUMER ALERT: There is a growing number of trainers calling themselves “Balanced” that use virtually no reward-based tactics, no holistic overview and try to solve virtually every problem with punishment. Clearly, this is not Balanced at all. 

 

Mistake #5 – Lack of Follow Through 

 

Lack of follow through is another common problem with punishment. Let’s use “Leash Reactivity” or “Leash Aggression” as an example: The dog barks at another dog and the owner gives a leash correction, which stops the barking for a second, so they just stand there and do nothing. They don’t recognize that the dog is still in an aroused state and gearing up for round two, so they never quite get the dog’s behavior where it needs to be. Predictably, the barking resumes and often escalates. 

 

Following through can be as simple as praising and rewarding the dog for that moment of changed behavior, such as no longer barking at the other dog. This may be enough to get the dog out of arousal or redirect her attention to you rather than the other dog. Follow through might also be an assertive body posture or redirecting the dog into an alternative behavior like “Heel” or walking away to avert eye contact with the other dog. 

 

Follow through might also be actually letting the dog do what she wanted to do in the first place, such as meet the dog she was barking at, which is called “Granny’s Rule.” (After you’ve stopped the barking and settled them down of course.) I’ve worked with hundreds of reportedly “aggressive” dogs that were actually just frustrated. The owners had often been told by other trainers to maintain a distance from the other dog so they could maintain control or engagement. These are valid tactics but they lacked the follow through of deciphering the dog’s motivation for barking. They assumed the dog was fearful or aggressive which, in those cases, was inaccurate. 

 

Another lack of follow through is simply not putting in the time and effort to learn how to train a dog correctly. For example: Buying a book on dog training but not reading it or reading it but not following the advice or signing up for obedience classes but not practicing. These are guarantees that punishment will be used incorrectly.  

 

Mistake #6 – Lack of Emotional Control

 

“Never correct out of anger” is a common dog training motto but there are other problematic emotions such as guilt, fear or embarrassment. Ideally any use of punishment should be emotionally neutral. Think, “I’m not mad at you, I love you, you just can’t do that.” 

 

People with stressful lives or anger management issues would be obvious candidates for punishment out of anger. Ironically, however, it’s often the gentlest people, trying their best to use reward-based training, that eventually have an emotional meltdown. All those good intentions go out the window when they finally lose their cool and “just can’t’ take it anymore!” Then they feel guilty about it and try to apologize to the dog that has no clue what’s up with Sybil. 

 

Anger causes too high an intensity and inconsistency. An angry person is also less likely to think rationally about the situation from a balanced, holistic point of view. 

 

Guilt or fear of hurting the dog often causes corrections to come across as weak and hesitant. The dog senses the owner isn’t confident and doesn’t take them seriously. Guilt + fear + hesitation = delayed timing, inconsistency and under-correction. 

 

Fear of the dog hurting you is another matter altogether. Some dogs will attack a person who tries to punish them but it’s very rare that this happens for everyday corrections such as pulling on the leash or jumping on guests. It is very common with dogs that are already aggressive in some way such as resource guarders, biters or fighters. Dangerous dogs are a whole different story. If you are afraid, you are probably not qualified to deal with it, so please hire a qualified trainer. That being said, using a reasonable, fair correction on a “normal” dog will not make them attack you. If that were the case, there would be millions of dog attacks every day and people would stop having dogs as pets. 

 

Any use of punishment should be emotionally neutral or from a place of love. If you’re not in a state of “just training a dog” then take a break and get your head together.  

 

Mistake #7 – Lack of Holistic Perspectives

 

Sometimes the biggest punishment mistake is the use of punishment without first getting a holistic perspective. By that I mean getting to know the dog, the owners, their lifestyle, their goals, etc. To gain a holistic perspective we need to zoom out and get a sense the “wholeness” of the situation. Many times, people are using punishment incorrectly, or when they shouldn’t even be using it at all, because they failed to ask the right questions or failed to have a clear awareness of dog behavior and dog psychology. Here are just a few common examples:  

  • Why is the dog doing it?
    • Is the dog bored, in pain, stressed, fearful, under-exercised, over-stimulated or simply in need of some sort of fulfillment? 
  • What other options, besides punishment, are there? 
  • What are the gentlest punishment options that actually work? 
  • Is this an emergency situation?
    • Does the behavior need to be stopped immediately or do I have time on my side? 
  • Lack of awareness regarding the dog’s body language.
  • Punishing the dog for behavior that was not actually bad or wrong. 
    • Thinking it’s aggression when it’s actually play, fear or frustration. 
    • Thinking it’s dominance or stubbornness when it’s confusion, stress, fear or submission. 
    • Punishing the dog that growled or snapped instead of the dog or child that was being rude to the dog. 
  • Misunderstanding what the dog does and does not understand. (virtually guaranteed that this is happening.) 
  • Punishing without realizing it
    • Calling the dog from the yard and then putting him into the crate.
    • Calling at the dog park when it’s time to go.
    • Petting a dog that is uncomfortable with being touched. 
  • Giving the dog too much freedom, too soon.
    • Failure to provide enough management. 

 

I know I mentioned this before but let me say it again, “Punishment is not always the answer.” (See: Lack of Balance and Poor Timing) Remember, poor timing can mean that it’s simply not a time for punishment at all. Lack of balance can mean a lack of knowledge regarding the effective use of reward-based methods. A holistic perspective basically includes all of the above sections and more, it has to do with trying to have the highest awareness possible regarding the wholeness of the situation. 
 

Mistake #8 – Attempted or Proclaimed Nonexistence

 

Many times, owners hesitate to use punishment of any sort because they feel like it’s mean or because they have been told not to by professionals. This is especially problematic when owners believe that their dog is their “fur-baby” because you would never punish a baby. Sure, they’re cute and cuddly and fill that “baby” spot in our hearts but, in order to discuss punishment rationally, we need to get real about the fact that dogs are not babies! Newsflash: Dogs actually like being dogs, they don’t want to be human and they certainly don’t want to be treated like a baby! 

 

“Ok, I get it, but my trainer, vet and favorite YouTuber all said I should never punish my dog.”

 

I know, I know, we’ve all heard the mantra a million times but something has gone off the rails regarding positive reinforcement in dog training and what it can and cannot achieve. As we saw at the top of this article, all dog trainers, even the “Positive” ones, use punishment. Here’s a quote from Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of the APDT, which is one of the worlds leading “Positive” associations.

 

“You have to punish in training…..My dividing line is not with whether or not we should punish, it’s with the nature of the punishment…..Punishment should be punishing but it doesn’t have to be painful or fearful.” – Dr. Ian Dunbar  

 

Many trainers, while proclaiming their nonuse of punishment, will use head halters, loud noises, verbal reprimands and timeouts. Not only are these punishments, they can cause high levels of stress, fear and emotional pain. So, it’s actually not a matter of punishment vs no punishment, it’s a matter of what you consider an acceptable punishment. Then, of course, it’s a matter of whether what you are doing is effective or not.  

 

I could write a very long book on this topic but, for the sake of brevity, I will share just one example to paint a picture of the sort of reality I see on a regular basis: I saw a client who, by recommendation of his vet, had gone to the behavioral department of a veterinary university for help with his dog’s aggression. According to this client, he paid $500 for a “consultation” with a veterinary behaviorist to sit in an office and talk about his dog. He was sent home with some papers to read, a recommended list of books by “Positive” trainers and a bunch of ineffective advice. They chastised him for using a prong collar and then told him the dog should never go to the dog park again and needed to be muzzled. All this was advised based on an intake form and a conversation! Literally, the dog was never evaluated or trained at all.  

 

I showed him how to properly use a prong collar and socialized his dog with my dog with no problems. After one private lesson, I invited him to join my group class. We got his dog off leash with other dogs and never had a fight because we had established some control over the dog.  

 

We also used plenty of rewards but, when it came down to interrupting any posturing towards other dogs, punishment allowed us to “correct” the dog before things went bad. We never used a muzzle because the dog was not even a dangerous case. In fact, this was an easy case compared to many that I have seen. 

 

Conclusion

 

I hope you found this article illuminating in some way. Punishment will always be a controversial topic. It will always be an emotionally charged word that is associated with “abuse” and, when misused, that could be accurate. On the other hand, the proper and reasonable use of punishment in dog training and behavior modification will never be “outdated” or unnecessary because reward-based training, as important as it is, will not solve every problem. If you understand and avoid the eight punishment mistakes described above, you should be on the right track. 

 

If you are in the Bay Area and struggling with your dog’s behavior, please contact us for in-person training. If you are out of the area, we also offer virtual consults

 

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