The Problem with Punishment

Training is a critical component of our relationship with dogs. Training isn’t about teaching dogs to do tricks for our amusement or about bending them to our will; it’s about enhancing communication between species and assuring good outcomes for everybody. And it’s another way to enhance the human-animal bond, and the particularly special relationship we have with dogs.

However, some training methods are at odds with the spirit of the human-animal bond. When dog trainers or pet owners resort to harming animals in an effort to train them, it weakens the relationship. Training should be fun and stimulating for both people and their pets. When training becomes painful or frightening, it will induce stress and anxiety in dogs, and that’s not a desired outcome.

Physical, punishment-based training is grounded in outdated theories of dominance. Such methods may include the use of choke chains, shock collars, or alpha rolls (physically rolling a dog onto the ground and holding him there).  While these methods peaked in popularity in the 1960s, the science of dog training has advanced significantly in the last 50 years and today’s reputable trainers overwhelmingly shun them in favor of positive reinforcement.

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ position on dominance and training states that “physical or psychological intimidation hinders effective training and damages the relationship between humans and dogs.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior notes that punishment can cause several adverse effects, including “inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”

These major, mainstream organizations reflect a modern view on dog training, making it clear that the resurgence of punishment and dominance in training is simply the inevitable pushback that a sea change in any major field would face. Some people may promote harsh training methods because they’re entrenched in the old ways and unwilling to change, or just don’t realize that great results can come from positive reinforcement.

The human-animal bond comes with human responsibility, largely because of the power we hold in the relationship. We should pursue best practices in all of our interactions with our animal friends, including in the fast-changing world of dog training.

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Positively Expert: Wayne Pacelle

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal advocacy organization. He took office in 2004. Since joining the HSUS, he has played a role in the passage of more than 15 federal statutes to protect animals.


9 thoughts on “The Problem with Punishment

  1. Dr Jo Righetti (animal behaviourist)

    Good post. While I am already enlightened and on the path to educate others, it is good to have others backing this up. Change happens when the same advice comes from different directions. Together we can make life better for dogs - and their owners 🙂

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  3. Tina Torresan

    Thank you for posting this. Sometimes it is so hard to engage in conversation with proponents of negative base training. This makes it simple!

  4. Dixie Duran

    I had a trainer that said to use food for all training & avoid other dogs that mine reacts to in fear. Tell me if there is a way to actually communicate to the dog, to change the behavior. We can't avoid all dogs all the time. I would like a more realistic approach to understanding why she does this & how to intelligently & realistically approach the problem with success.

  5. Nina Rosalie

    As a current student of the Animal Behavior College (thanks to Victoria's website recommendation) I am not only increasing my knowledge about positive reward based training, but enjoying the blogs, books, and so much other literature "out there" that supports this philosophy. Opening this forum of communication so that people... from student trainers... to the experts can only result in spreading positive thinking about positive reward based training! Really liked your post!

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  7. Little Bear Dog Blog

    To Dixie Duran's point, I too have a reactive dog and have been advised by our behaviourist to avoid and distract as a means of coping with his fear, but as you say, on times this is impossible.

    If I spot something likely to worry him before he does (quite a feet given his senses compared to mine) then I have time to distract him and move to a safe distance - but if he sees it first or if I'm unable to move away quickly enough then I'd really like to know how to deal with his reaction as by that point food and toys are useless and gettng him away quickly is the only option.

    Instinctively though, I want to help him feel less fearful in the first place - as a life of anxiety trying to avoid things that might scare him feels like a life half lived and our dogs deserve better than that.

    Thoughts and advice very welcome.

  8. R. R. Wilkinson

    I have never liked the concept of choke chains ever since I was a kid (I'm 37 now). We had a mixed breed beast of a dog that had outgrown his choker and had to be cut off. Those things are THE most useless wastes of metal a person can present to me.

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