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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  • I just love what you have written. I have two reactive dogs and although we never tried any shock collars (thanks to Victoria's show) we have been working on behavior modification for about a year with one of them and are starting to see some real results. He is much calmer in the presence of strange people and other dogs. He took his first agility class Saturday and did great. He was a little stressed and reactive at first but once he got into it he was the calmest I have ever seen him around 'strange' dogs. Because of these two dogs I have done a lot of reading about dog behavior and am not apprenticing to become a trainer myself. I also strongly urge against painful 'fixes' as they often create more trouble than they were meant to fix!

  • Etta Heisler

    I got my lovely beagle puppy in September & she was a delight. Unfortunately I was not able to take her to puppy classes because of an ongoing giardia problem. By the time I had he cured & spayed she was a little over 6 months. She has developed some serious shyness problems & is afraid of the street with all its noises. When people come into the apartment she runs into the bedroom. She has also developed a bad, bad chewing problem. Do we need individual help at this point or could we benefit from a group training?

  • Hi Etta,

    Whether your pup's shyness and fear issues stem from a lack of early socialization or any other reason, the good news is, it's not too late. Because this is a behavioral issue, you would be best served by working with a private trainer. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.apdt.com) is a good place to begin your search, as they list trainers by city. You might also find my book Help for Your Fearful Dog (www.phantompub.com) useful. It has chapters on all of the things you've described.

    Best of luck with your beagle puppy!

    Nicole

  • Sienna

    Victoria,
    I am one of those people who's had to use the shock collar because my dog does not stop barking for one second. When I am home I deal with it myself by calmly redirecting her attention, BUT when I'm not home she is out of control! She barks NONSTOP and digs so she can get to my neighbor's dogs. I am at my wits end because it drives everyone crazy and it affects my elderly mother in law because she can't control her. She's a 40 lb cocker but she's very strong! What should I do? I've been dealing with this for three years. I've tried dog walkers, obedience classes, we are at present going to an agility class. She's fine when I'm with her but I have to do SOMETHING for when I am not there. HELP!

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  • I agree that a shock collar, or any type of punishment, is the worst possible response to a dog who is behaving aggressively or anxiously toward people or dogs! What a disaster!

    One of my dogs used to be very reactive to dogs, and some things just don't heal overnight. I sprayed DAP on my pants legs and carried around roast beef, and I read Emma Parson (Click to Calm) and Patricia McConnell's booklets, Leslie McDevitt, Brenda Aloff, Ian Dunbars videos. She inspired me to study and learn! I spent many months working with her, gently pushing her threshold in many safe social environments. Today, this dog is a completely different dog. I operate a dog daycare and wholistic board and train program (unlike many board and train programs, I don't use shock collars on the guests!), and now this formerly nervous nellie at five years old is the picture of calm authority. She is so smart, almost as though her reactivity was really just a symptom of an especially sensitive personality. She picks up on everything. She will never be a big goofball dog, but she has developed into a rather regal one, who jknows how to stay out of the other dogs way, unless of course she wants something, and then she knows how to negotiate for it.

    Training just takes time. I don't know why people get so impatient, and think (if they don't see instant results) "this isn't working." Gardeners don't think that way. We give a tree a chance to grow. We don't look at a tomato plant with green fruit and give it a jolt. We give the plant what it needs: warmth, water, light. Dogs are also living, growing creatures. Slow and steady wins the race. When we give dogs what they need (education for example) they eventually bloom.

  • brenda rogers

    your book that was published in 2005 how much to purchase

    thanks

    brenda

  • Hi Sienna,

    Nicole here, author of the blog you were replying to... regarding your dog's incessant barking outside when you're not home (and digging to get to your neighbor's dogs), if you're only gone 3-4 hours and she's an adult dog without medical issues, you could crate her inside the house. Making sure she's well exercised before you leave will help, as will leaving her with a fabulous stuffed chew toy like a Kong. If you're gone all day, and your mother in law is elderly and doesn't want to/can't deal with her, assuming your dog likes other dogs, doggy daycare might be a good option. If you take her every other day, on the days she's home she'll be much more mellow and relaxed, and perhaps could be crated at least part of the day with your mother in law then able to let her out periodically.

    Best of luck,
    Nicole Wilde

  • For Sienna - In addition to Nicole's wonderful suggestions for your barking dog, the music of Through a Dog's Ear has been known to quiet many dogs when their people are away. I'd suggest playing Music to Calm your Canine Companion (either Volume 1 or 2) for her for a few days when you are with her and she is already calm. It will work well at bedtime because it will also make you sleepy. After she has heard the music in a calm state for a few days, then leave it playing for her when she is alone, possibly in the crate chewing something yummy from her Kong. Then gradually leaving her for longer periods of time with the music playing. The music has been clinically demonstrated to relieve anxiety issues and I'm received countless emails telling me how much it has helped dogs stop barking. Victoria has also played it in the taping of It's Me or the Dog, and it's helped calm the dogs. More info, downloads, sound samples, etc. can be found at http://www.ThroughADogsEar.com

  • espencer

    I would agree that a slap on the face for "biting your nails" is a hard redirection for a mild behavior. Now let's suppose that if instead of slapping you in the face i touch you or i pull you towards me. The message would be more clear, i am not being aggressive but i demonstrate that i dont like your behavior. Most likely you will say "oh right, the nail biting" and you'll stop

    Human psychology and dog psychology are different but the point is the same. If you dont want me to touch you then you will stop. You wont react aggressive because i'm not being aggressive either. Biting your nails is not "worth" the discomfort of the touch.

    For a better understanding here are the Eight Rules for Using Punishment:

    "1. The punishment must be something the animal dislikes and something the animal does not expect.

    2. The punishment must suppress behavior. (This is, in fact, the very definition of something that is a punisher.) If something is being used for punishment, but it does not suppress behavior, it’s ineffective and often just plain abuse.

    3. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much and there will be negative fallout. You’ll end up hurting your relationship with the animal and loosing more than just that behavior. Too little and the punishment will only serve to desensitize the animal and build resistance.

    4. The punishment must happen immediately after the behavior it is to be associated with. Otherwise, a clear enough association between the wrong behavior and the punishment will not be made.

    5. The punishment must be associated with the behavior, but not with the trainer. Otherwise, the trainer becomes part of the punishment and the animal starts fearing and disliking the trainer.

    6. The punishment must happen every time the behavior occurs. If punishment does not happen every time the behavior occurs, the behavior gets put on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Depending on the behavior and how often the punishment actually occurs, the animal could decide that performing the behavior was worth the risk of getting punished.

    7. There must be an alternative for the animal.

    8. Punishment must never be used to the extent that punishment outweighs positive reinforcement (from the animal’s perspective, not yours!)

    If you can’t follow all 8 of these rules, you’re probably better off avoiding the use of punishment. Heck, even if you can follow all 8 rules, you’re probably better off avoiding the use of punishment, as punishment can result in so many unintended and undesirable side effects."

    Point 3 and 5 are the most significant ones. Point 3 is actually an example of a "slap on the face" for only "biting your nails"

    And i agree, if people cant follow these to perfection (which is most likely the case) then they should not use it. However there are persons that actually are pretty good at them and cause no harm physically or mentally to the dog.

    Looking forward to meet you in St Louis on April 10th 🙂

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  • Me

    "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."

    Yes, but speaking as another professional here, we all know that anyone can hang a shingle at any time, regardless of actual expertise. And many owners DIY.

    Just like dogs may tend to generalize shock, as per the astute example given, so too do people when a poorly executed attempt at gentle and positive is witnessed/experienced. Now, said person may have generalized that ALL gentle and positive do not work on a whole and desperate, harsher measures are called for.

    Otherwise, brilliant Nicole, like usual.

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