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,
May 13, 2014
Episode #133

If you’ve read a few of my articles you already know that the harshest punishment I ever advise for a dog is a time-out. This week, 5 reasons why modern dog trainers avoid the collar yanks, scruff shakes, and shaker bottles full of pennies so common in the bad old days.

1. Punishment Is Inefficient

Let’s say you’ve got a puppy. Lucky you! But said puppy, being a puppy, is busy exploring the world with her teeth. She chews on the rug. She chews on your chair legs. She chews on you. Long story short, she chews on everything in sight and some things that aren’t. How do you teach her not to?

Punishment is inefficient and hard to gauge well. And it doesn’t teach your dog what you do want.

Of course, you can shake a penny can to scare her every time you catch her chewing on something inappropriate or dangerous. But that’s an endless list. Besides, you can punish Puppalini day in and day out for chewing the wrong thing, and you still won’t have taught her what in the world is okay for her to chew.

A much more efficient strategy is to supply Puppalini with appropriate chews, such as food-dispensing toys. If you also prevent access to those chair legs and Louboutins, she won’t have a chance to develop an interest in them. Keep chew toys handy when you’re playing with her, so you can divert her to them as soon as she shows any signs of wanting to use her pointy little puppy teeth on you.

Occasionally you may need to give Puppalini a time-out because she’s made a mistake or just needs a minute to settle down. But if you find yourself giving a lot of time-outs every time you interact with her, step back and think about what you can do better to prevent her from making mistakes. You’re supposed to be the smarter partner, right?

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.

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