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

Stories abound of dogs who became afraid to leave their yards even on leash after a so-called invisible fence was installed. Years ago, before my spouse and I knew better, we hired an old-school trainer to help with our dog Muggsy, who often lunged at strange men. The trainer had us shake a bottle full of pennies at Muggsy whenever he aggressed. This worked: Muggsy stopped lunging. Later we learned from a more up-to-date trainer how we could do much better – we could teach him to enjoy interacting with men. But here’s the punch line: Long after Muggsy had stopped aggressing toward anybody else, he’d still bark and lunge at that first trainer whenever we happened to run into him. While I can’t prove causation, I can say that experiences like ours are common ones. And more than one study has found a correlation between confrontational training on the one hand, and aggressive behavior, on the other.

5. If You’re Punishing, You’re Too Late

You’re too late because the behavior you’re trying to get rid of has usually already been rewarded in some way.

Punish your dog for eating all the pigs in blankets off the appetizer tray? Too bad, he already had his fun – plus, if you didn’t catch him in the act, you haven’t punished his scavenging but whatever he happened to be doing at the moment you punished him. (See #2, above.) 

Punish your Dogalini because she growled, snapped, and lunged at another dog? Odds are the other dog has already made tracks. That’s what Dogalini wanted, and it’s what she got. And you had to break up the action to get hold of her, so whatever you’re punishing, it’s not the canine argument: that’s already ancient history in Dogalini’s mind.

If you want to be in charge of your dog’s behavior, it’s important to manage situations in advance of any mistakes he might make. Put the canapés out of reach and give him a treat for his polite down-stay, so he learns he can get goodies of his own without nabbing yours. Keep quarrelsome Dogalini out of the dog park, because it’s clear she’s not socially at ease. Instead, introduce her carefully to one socially adept dog at a time, and better yet do so with a qualified trainer’s help.

There aren’t many guarantees in dog training, but here’s one: The safest and most helpful approach to any problem with your dog will combine proactive management and judicious use of rewards. And if you’re dealing with fear or aggression, add to that gentle, scientifically sound behavior modification techniques.

I hope you and your dog will visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer, follow me as Dogalini on Twitter, or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I read all my questions and comments, and though I usually can’t reply individually, I may use your question as the basis for a future article. Thanks for reading!

Scolding Puppy image courtesy of Shutterstock


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).