If punishment doesn’t work, why is it so popular?

I find myself having to tell at least one dog owner every week that part of the prescribed behavior modification plan is to avoid all forms of punishment. Why? Because these owners, frustrated by their dog’s behavior problem, and not feeling they have many other resources, are turning to aversive methods in an attempt to solve the problem.

For me, punishment means: yelling, scolding, hitting/kicking, kneeing, neck/side jabs, using a shock collar, repeated corrections with a prong or choke collar, or pinning the dog to the ground (the “alpha roll” or “dominance down”). Sadly, this is by no means the full extent of the punishment the extreme owner will have applied. But this is a list of the most common punishments I hear about.

So, why do I ask that people stop punishing their dogs? For one thing, it hasn’t helped or they wouldn’t be coming to me to solve the problem. Second, humans are not particularly good at choosing or delivering punishment. Third, punishment doesn’t give the dog a clue how you would like him to behave in a similar situation. Fourth, it’s pretty dangerous, especially in those dogs presenting for aggression.

My first point is pretty self explanatory. “I see that you’ve been using a shock collar on Fluffy for two years, Mr. Smith. How’s that been working for you?”

My second point, that humans are terrible at punishing, is based on learning theory. For punishment to reduce the incidence of an unwanted behavior, it must have three characteristics: it must be suitable (the punishment should fit the crime); it must be immediate (during, or within a second or two after, the unwanted behavior); and it must be applied consistently. But we’re humans. Consistency is definitely not a hallmark of our species. As for immediacy, I regularly meet owners that punish their dogs for things that were done while they were at work. And, it’s really difficult to come up with a punishment that’s appropriate; some lovely 1950s-style choices come to mind: “rub his nose in it;” “hit him with a rolled-up newspaper;” “pinch his muzzle until he drops it.” Sigh.

My third point, that punishment doesn’t tell the dog what to do, comes primarily from seeing the effect of punishment on growling in dogs. Many of my clients whose dogs have bitten people complain that their dog gives no warning, so they feel they can’t readily prevent the bite. I always ask if there was ever a time the dog did growl. Some say no. But the majority of people say that the dog used to growl when he was younger. What did they do when he would growl? Most would yell or otherwise punish the dog. So, the dog learned that growling was not acceptable; in these cases, the punishment worked. Unfortunately, the dog still feels fearful/territorial/irritable/other and wishes that the dog/person causing this feeling would go away. But he knows not to growl. So he bites.

I like to say that behavior does not like a vacuum: if you tell your dog no about his current behavior, you leave it up to him to choose a replacement behavior; and he may pick one you don’t like – like biting. But, if you ask him to do this instead of that, you have chosen the alternative for him. Example: “Rover, sit” is better then “No!!” when a dog is jumping on people. In the case of the dog that growls, the actual solution lies in changing the dog’s feeling about the object of his aggression (helping him not feel fearful/territorial/irritable/other) and giving him a more acceptable behavior to perform. In the meantime, every owner should listen when his dog growls and separate the dog from the object of his aggression. This ensures everyone’s safety.

On my fourth point, that punishment can be dangerous: There was a very interesting study a few years ago by Ilana Reisner, Meghan Herron, and Frances Shofer of the University of Pennsylvania that questioned dog owners about “behavior modification techniques” they had tried before seeking the help of a veterinary behaviorist. The survey asked the owners to choose from a list of possible “interventions” used, to give the source of each selected intervention (owner’s own idea, a trainer, etc.), and to describe the dog’s response. The researchers found that and hitting/kicking and growling at the dog elicited aggressive responses in nearly half of the dogs on which they were attempted. And, alpha rolls/dominance downs and prolonged staring caused nearly 1/3 of the dogs to become aggressive toward the owners.

It’s likely that many of these very aversive techniques come from the misperception that the owner must assert his “dominance” to get his dog to obey. But, your dog “misbehaving” has nothing to do with either you not being forceful enough or him “challenging” you. Rather, it may be from a lack of real leadership on your part; or your dog may have fear/anxiety that must be addressed before he can comfortably obey your commands in a challenging setting.

The bottom line is: if good leadership (in the form of a program like Nothing in Life is Free or learn to Earn) is not sufficient to correct your dog’s behavior problem, find a qualified professional to help. If you turn to a trainer, be diligent in checking qualifications and philosophy (after all, it’s no better to have a trainer punish your pet). If your dog is fearful, and medications may be in his future, see your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

A Note About Bark Collars. On one hand, bark collars appear to fit the definition of an effective punishment: the shock/spray is immediate and consistent, and some would argue that the aversive stimulus is appropriate. The question that is often overlooked is whether a dog should be punished for barking in the first place. In my professional opinion, barking is rarely controlled through punishment and should not be on a list of “punishable offenses.”

There are many, many reasons for a dog to bark: he may be issuing a warning; soliciting attention from people or other dogs; expressing his fear, pain, or boredom; engaging in a breed-specific social behavior (think Beagles); protecting his territory; etc. Punishment alone can exacerbate fear and pain and does nothing to alleviate any other cause of barking. Rather, if a dog is barking excessively, it is important to determine his motivation and correct this underlying cause. Fearful dogs must be treated for their fears. Bored dogs should go to doggy day care when their owners are at work. Beagle owners and their neighbors should get used to the sound of barking. Medical causes should be addressed.

Herron, ME, Shofer, FS, Reisner, I (2009), Survey of the use of outcomes of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. (117)47-54