Should You Punish Your Dog?

5 reasons why punishment is a bad idea – plus, better ways to teach your dog to behave.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #133

2. You May Not Be Punishing What You Think You’re Punishing

Suppose you give Zippy a brand-new chew, something he really likes. He goes to his bed to revel in it and then, when you happen to walk past, he growls at you. Dogs shouldn’t growl at their guardians! That’s aggression, and aggression against people is just unacceptable. So you do what many old-school trainers would tell you to do: you roll Zippy on his back and hold him down till he “submits.” Sure enough, the next day when he has another chew, you walk past and he doesn’t growl. You’ve successfully punished his aggression, right?

Maybe. And maybe not. It’s a good bet that what you punished wasn’t “aggression” but, specifically, Zippy’s growl. In other words, you punished Zippy for communicating his unease to you. You haven’t made him gladder to see you near his bone, so what happens if somebody really pushes that button one day? Zippy may skip right past growling and give that person a bite.

Of course nobody wants their dog growling at them. But scientifically sound behavior modification techniques can help defuse these problems, teaching your dog that he can be relaxed and at ease, instead of growling because he perceives a threat.   

3. It’s Hard to Gauge the “Right” Intensity of Punishment

A common old-school way to teach a dog to walk on leash without pulling is to fit her out with a choke collar or a prong collar and give a yank – a “correction” – whenever the leash draws tight. If you don’t “correct” severely enough, the dog will go right back to pulling as soon as there’s something she wants to get to more than she’s afraid of the collar yank. She will also be less sensitive to yanking now – she’ll develop what’s called a “punishment callus.” If you want to keep using corrections to teach her, you’ll have to yank much harder to make an impression. But this way, you can easily find yourself on a slippery slope to outright abuse. Your better bet: a clicker and treats, along with plenty of sniff breaks, to teach her that walking next to you will get the goods.

4. Punishment Is Associated With Problem Fallout

Furthermore, if you punish a dog too severely, you run other risks.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).