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Physical, punishment-based training is grounded in outdated theories of dominance.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.


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