Is Punishment Really a Quick Fix?

I’ve just gotten off the phone with a distressed dog owner. His year-old beagle has recently taken to barking at other dogs and people on walks, and has a long-standing habit of barking in the yard when left alone. After a bit of discussion, the man divulged that the dog had been wearing a shock collar night and day for the last two weeks. This suggestion came courtesy of the clerk at his local chain pet supply store who sold him the collar. The kindly, soft-spoken owner was not comfortable shocking his dog, and cringed each time he heard the beagle yelp in surprise and pain. I was able to convince him during our phone conversation to remove the collar, and we set up an in-person session to help him address the dog’s issues in a gentle, humane way.

I haven’t yet met a person who wants to cause their dog pain. And yet many owners turn to shock collars (also known as electronic collars or e-collars) and other “quick fix” methods such as harsh jerking with a choke chain or prong collar to stop unwanted behaviors. Some make these choices because they simply don’t know what else to do, and a solution is needed—yesterday! Others, like my caller, have received advice from a well-meaning layperson, or even a professional dog trainer or veterinarian who is either unfamiliar with other methods or chooses not to use them.

The problems with using punishments such as electric shock, jerking, slapping, and kicking are many. First, although the correction may appear to instantly solve the problem, it simply suppresses the behavior. Let’s say we’re friends. We like and trust each other, and enjoy spending time together. However, I have a habit of biting my fingernails, which you find incredibly annoying; so annoying, in fact, that you decide to take decisive action. The next time I bite my nails, whack! You slap me hard across the face. It stops me in my tracks! But what else did that instant fix accomplish? For one thing, I’m now beginning to suspect that you can’t be trusted. I’m not sure why you slapped me (I wasn’t even aware I was biting my nails at the time), and, as far as I can tell, you might reach out and strike me again at any time. Let’s say you repeat this punishment another time or two. Now I most definitely distrust you! Although you’re nice to me at other times, I no longer feel the same affection for you as I once did, and I certainly no longer look upon you as someone who will keep me safe if trouble arises. My safe harbor has turned into a scary, unpredictable place.

Putting the emotional aspect aside for a moment, lets examine whether the punishment actually solved the problem. Although the slap stopped me at the moment I was engaging in the unwanted behavior, the issue of what caused me to chew at my nails in the first place remains. The continuing existence of that unresolved original problem increases the likelihood that I will continue the behavior, albeit possibly only when you’re absent. Perhaps underlying the nail chewing is a case of nerves and stress caused by something in my environment, or a lack of ease or familiarity with certain types of people or situations I’m now encountering. Your slapping raised my stress levels. I didn’t dare retaliate physically, but my suppressed frustration and anger may end up being taken out on someone I perceive as weaker. With dogs, this dynamic is often seen when the man of the family uses harsh physical coercion or punishment with the dog, who in turn begins snapping at the wife or children.

There’s also the problem of association. Going back to the shock collar, imagine that the dog sees another dog on the street, barks, and receives a shock. Because dogs associate things that happen within seconds of each other (remember Pavlov’s dog?), the dog soon begins to associate what he’s seeing at the time of the shock—in this case, other dogs—with the experience of pain. The result is apt to be a dog who nervously scans the environment, apprehensive of the pain that will accompany the appearance of another dog. That dog may soon begin to take the offense, lunging and barking at other dogs—and the cycle begins again.

Association can happen unbeknownst to us, as well. For example, the dog who barks in the yard when no one is home may be barking at passersby. If he receives a shock each time, the pairing is creating a negative association with people—a bigger issue than the original problem of nuisance barking!

There are other reasons why harsh punishment is inadvisable, from dangerously malfunctioning equipment to poor timing on the handler’s part causing unwanted associations. The bottom line is this: There is no earthly reason to use harsh punishment-based methods to fix behavior problems, when there are gentle, positive methods that work. These techniques work just as well—and often better—and do not create behavioral or emotional fallout. If you change the dog’s underlying emotion to the point that he views other dogs and people as a positive thing, the dog’s behavior will change and the problem will truly be solved. It may take a bit more patience and effort to implement a behavior modification program versus choosing a quick fix, but it’s well worth it. In doing so you will solve the real problem once and for all, and receive a pretty wonderful reward yourself—your dog’s ongoing trust and affection.

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


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