10 Reasons Why Punishment Fails in Dog Training by Niki Perry

I am often asked if I ever use corrections during training exercises with my animals. And in short the answer is “no”, however there are times when it would be appropriate to interrupt a particular undesirable behavior and by definition this would be punishment. But my goal with an interruption is to create a pause in a behavior so that I can quickly redirect the animal to a new and more appropriate behavior choice and an opportunity to earn reinforcement. I do not expect my interruptions to influence future occurrences of that particular behavior.

There are many reasons why I, and most animal trainers and behavior consultants who employ science-based training exercises to their animal education courses, choose to not use punishment. This article will address ten reasons that punishment will not help you train your dog. In this article the terms “punishment” and “aversive training” are referring to any harsh physical correction used in an attempt to influence behavior choices by an animal. The information presented below is based on the experience of Niki Perry, CPDT-KA, KPACTP and the facts and research taken from the works of B.F. Skinner, K. Pryor, M. Breland-Bailey.

1) The use of punishment only as a means to teach an animal is an incomplete training program because it only teaches the animal what NOT to do. Whereas reinforcement gives very specific information to the animal as to what is expected of them and it influences appropriate behavior choices with very few steps involved in the training process.

2) Aversive training may suppress action but not get to the root of the function of that particular behavior. This can be particularly dangerous when warning signals such as growling or baring teeth are punished in dog training. The result may be that the dog resorts right to the biting action without warning. When proper applied behavior analysis is employed in a behavior change program by an experienced behavior consultant, the root motivation of the problematic behavior can be identified and carefully counter-conditioned. Through these techniques a new association is created and new, more appropriate alternative behaviors are taught through positive reinforcement training systems.

3) Punishment can cause great confusion and mistrust and this is especially true if emotion such as a human’s frustration plays a part in the punishment. Not too many people can say they’ve punished their dog without emotion playing a part. In most instances, the human is very upset, angry or frustrated when they punish their dog. It’s best to not use intimidation, force or physical manipulation and instead use kind, consistent teaching systems to avoid creating aversive contingencies within your relationship with your animal.

4) Punishment might lead to the wrong conclusion due to timing of delivery and could cause the dog to substitute with another problematic behavior. Very few people can time punishment to effectively influence future occurrences of a particular behavior. Therefore, in many cases punishment just ends up being an outlet for frustration, as discussed above.

5) The use of non-contingent punishment can add another dimension of fear or arousal to fear based aggression, which will only compound the problem. When the timing of the delivery of the punishment is off, even by a couple of seconds, the dog will not understand why they were punished. As discussed above, when the timing is off it may lead to the wrong conclusion and in many cases it may cause your dog to mistrust you – the one they should be able to look to for guidance, love and support.

6) Aversive training, particularly repetitive use of aversive stimuli during training can cause learned helplessness, or in other words the dog decides that everything they do causes a punishing consequence, so they stop trying. This is the case of the “calm submissive” dog that you see on TV. In fact the dog is not in a “calm submissive” state, but actually the dog has been punished so many times without knowing why, that they have given up trying to earn reinforcement. It’s actually quite sad and many dogs require rehabilitation after experiencing training that resulted in learned helplessness.

7) Sometimes what seems like punishment to the human is actually reinforcement for the dog’s behavior. For example if the function of a particular behavior is to gain attention and the dog receives a verbal reprimand, in the dog’s mind it worked!

8) In order for the punishing consequence to be effective in influencing future behavior, it must be delivered consistently, every time the behavior occurs. Lets be honest, this is impossible. You can’t possibly be everywhere all the time to punish behaviors, and since all it really takes is one chance at “self reinforcement” for a behavior to be likely to occur again, it is pointless to use punishment. Instead, it would be more effective to use empowerment-training techniques that focus on teaching your dog how to make their own appropriate behavior choices. Only through the reinforcement of desired behaviors will the dog start to choose those options over the undesirable behaviors they are currently performing.

9) Punishment does not carry over well from experience to experience. Just because the animal was punished for one thing doesn’t mean they will understand that punishment will occur for each instance similar to the original behavior. For example, just because a dog was punished for chewing a shoe, it doesn’t mean they understand not to chew at all. A more effective approach to this would to be to understand that chewing is a very natural behavior in dogs and can actually be very healthy for them, so teach your dog what they can chew on. If you find your dog chewing on a chair you can gently interrupt him and guide him to chew on an appropriate object like a yummy, stuffed Kong. If you need to, this would be a great time to practice confinement training in a crate or quiet room.

10) To be effective, punishment needs to be delivered with an intensity and perfect timing, once. If you have to continue to punish an animal for the same behavior, the consequence is not influencing future behavior. Repeated physical punishment in the name of training without proper effect constitutes abuse. Also it may cause a “punishment callus” and eventually the level of intensity required would have to be stronger than what you started with.

Please do not attempt behavior change protocols for extreme behaviors such as aggression, extreme fear and phobias, without a highly training and credentialed behavior consultant. Certified Canine Behavior Consultants are knowledgeable and experienced professionals who can safely guide you through a systematic behavior change program. To find a behavior consultant or dog trainer in your area visit www.ccpdt.org or www.karenpryoracademy.com.

by Niki Perry, CPDT-KA, KPACTP, CEMT, Release the Hounds Board Member

Niki’s website: The Beloved Beast