Common (Dog) Sense


Punishment, the evil word in dog training

I am becoming very bored with the statement, "we don't need to use violence to train a dog" The positive-only and force-free (PO/FF) groups say that their training follows the principles of canine behaviour, and that all dogs are instinctively looking to please us, so there is no need to use 'violence'.
The term 'violence' in dog training and behaviour modification has become the PO/FF training catch phrase. According to these groups, anyone that uses any type of force or an applied aversive, in otherwords physical punishment, are relying on violence to train a dog. If this statement wasn't so serious, it would honestly be laughable. How did the term punishment become synonymous with violence? Appropriate punishment when carried out correctly is not a voilent act.


Let me run through each of the points raised in the above image:

  1. It inhibits learning - If this was indeed a true statement, then how have animal social groups survived and evolved since the beginning of time? I ask any positive-only or force-free trainer, to point out just one social group in the animal kingdom that does not utilise punishment to help maintain social order within the pack, or to control a limited resource, such as food, space or mating rights. So if indeed this statement is in fact true, no animal on the planet including humans would have survived for all these millions of years, as they would have learnt nothing, as according to this statement, all learning would have been inhibited.
  2. It can lead to aggression - OK again, if this was indeed an across the board true blanket statement, then why have social animals survived and evolved for millions of years? Over the past 36 years of working professionally with dogs, I would say that one of the biggest issues that is causing aggression in the family dog, or why there is a continuing increase each year of hospitalisations for dog bites, is due to the fact that dog owners are being falsely informed that all their dog requires is lots of love and affection. After all, your dog will not bite you or become aggressive towards you if it loves you in return. Well unfortunately, love and affection alone will not encourage respect from your dog, or in fact even from other humans that have a leadership type role, such as a parent, employer, law enforcement, etc. In animal social groups (even human) its the enforcement of boundaries and rules, that creates respect between individuals within the social group, and holds that social group together. When discipline ceases, the social group falls into disarray and chaos, and the social group will very quickly cease to exist as a cohesive unit. Aren't we already seeing this in our own society where punishment is being condemned, and even outlawed, to appease a minority group that steadfastly believes that punishment is indeed violence? Not only this, it is my firm belief and observation, that most inappropriate punishment comes to light due to not being instructed on how to apply 'appropriate' punishment. I have lost count of how many homes I have been to over the years, whereby the dog owner has tried so hard to follow the positive-only or force-free agenda, only to have frustration build up to such a level that indeed emotion takes over and becomes anger, and then inappropriate punishment, which can be correctly termed violence has the very real potential of raising its ugly head. When a dog owner that has been falsely informed that punishment is never an option, it then eventually becomes the only option, and then has the potential to be controlled by negative emotions such as frustration and anger.
  3. It is very difficult to execute effectively - Well isn't it the case that almost anything is difficult to execute effectively, if it is not first  understood and therefore taught how to apply it correctly? I have come across more dogs in homes that have issues such as extreme anxiety, overly assertive behaviours, hyperactivity, and the list goes on, due to incorrectly administered love and affection. Dog owners, just as they should do to understand when its appropriate to give love and affection, and how to impliment this correctly, need to be taught what appropriate punishment techniques are, how to impliment them and when it is and is not appropriate to do so.
  4. It doesn't teach the dog what to do - Punishment isn't used to teach any animal what to do, it is to teach an animal what NOT to do. Isn't that obvious to everyone? Why do these groups continually come out with this statement? The reason is, because they want you to believe that anyone that uses punishment, only use punishment in training to train dogs ,to push their positive-only and force-free agenda. Wherein the truth is, that punishment usually implimented in less than 10% of the time. Punishment is used to inhibit or extinguish a behaviour, it is not used to teach a behaviour, other than avoidance. The problem with positive-only ideology, is that there is no consequence for carrying out an unwanted or dangerous behaviour. These groups main method is to only teach an alternative behaviour, and stop rewarding the current unwanted behaviour. In most cases, all this methodology does is add another behaviour to the dogs repertoire of already learnt behaviours, it doesn't remove or inhibit any behaviours. So the unwanted behaviour they are only ignoring has the very strong potential of raising its ugly head, whenever the dog feels it is advantageous to do so, as there is never an unpleasant consequence the dog can drawn on in its memory to avoid carrying out that behaviour.
  5. It doesn't stop the reinforcement of the unwanted behaviour - This statement is true for any methodology you choose to employ when training a dog or modifying behaviour. Unless one stops reinforcing a behaviour, it will never cease to be a behavioural response for the dog.
  6. It can increase the behaviour if applied inconsistently - Why does this statement suggest that it is inconsistent punishment that increases behaviour, which indeed is not true. In fact its the inconsistent reinforcing of behaviour that increases or strengthens a behaviour. Inconsistent punishment only teaches the dog to be selective as to when it chooses that particular behaviour, not strengthen it. For example, most of us speed occasionally when driving. The reason most of us do speed is because the punishment is inconsistent. Inconsistency of the punishment doesn't make us speed more often or faster, it just teaches us to be selective as when to speed. Variable positive reinforcement is one of the strongest methods known to strengthen a behaviour, after-all that's the principle poker machines (slot machines) work on. Variable reinforcement actually strengthens a behaviour. However, I do agree that 'inappropriate' punishment can increase avoidance behaviours such as fear based aggression. However, its not the aggression that the dog perceives as reinforcement, its the compliance to the aggressive response, by backing away that reinforces the aggression.
  7. The animal can grow used to the punishment so that higher and high levels of intensity are required - The issue I have with this statement is that when an aversive is administered at or below the dogs threshold of discomfort, all it becomes is an interrupter of the behaviour. An interrupter will not inhibit or extinguish a behaviour that the dog finds self rewarding. The aversive needs to be applied just above the dogs threshold of discomfort for it to decide that it is best to avoid that particular behaviour. Its the dog that decides if the punishment is severe enough for it to want to avoid the behaviour it is paired with, not the person administering it. The motivation to avoid discomfort needs to be stronger than the motivation to carry out the behaviour. Yes I do agree, that by not administering an aversive just above the dogs current threshold of discomfort, can actually increase the dogs threshold of discomfort each time it is administered.
  8. The animal can develop unintended associations with the punishment, for example other animals or people - Same can be said about the incorrect use of positive reinforcement. The inappropriate use of positive reinforcement can develop in a dog an increased sense of entitlement and assertive behaviours. It can also help develop increased dependency issues and an overly anxious emotional state resulting in stress. It doesn't matter what quadrant of operant conditioning we are using to either reinforce or inhibit a behaviour, we need to understand their correct use.
  9. It is disempowering for the animal - Not sure I quite understand this statement. Isn't the purpose for applying an aversive to take away a dogs sense of control of the relationship, or personal and social space, or resouce? Or to inhibit or extinguish an unwanted behaviour?  Or do we want to empower a dogs sense of control over us by only utilising positive reinforcement?
  10. It is habit forming for the punisher - This is a ridiculous statement, I can say this in regards to dog owners that are habitual in overly administering (and inapropriate) affection to their dog. An abusive person is an abusive person, and has nothing to do with the four quadrants of operant conditioning (R+, R-, P+, P-). No dog trainer enjoys punishing a dog, but we are well aware that at times it is a requirement, if we want to establish a well balanced relationship with our dog, ensure a well balanced dog, and to inhibit or extinguish inapparopriate, and most importantly, dangerous behaviours.

We need to stamp out abusepunishstick

Human nature for what its worth, has its good points and not so good points. However, we are never going to stamp out abuse, by denying appropriate common sense discipline and punishment. This concept of denying all punishment is never going to curtail abusive behaviour. We don't live in a utopian society, and nor does the animal kingdom. Utopia is an ideal or concept that isn't based in reality, but belongs to fantasyland. It is a world of course we'd all love to live in, whereby everyone just loved each other unconditionally, and always wanted to do right for the greater good of the social group or community. By denying people the right to use appropriate punishment, we are setting social groups up for failure, whether that be families, or the greater social community, and even our relationship with our dogs. Animals understand this instinctively. Even all humans at a deeper level understand this concept, no matter their current ideological beliefs. They know that punishment is a concept that can never be abolished if we want to live in a well balanced society. This doesn't mean we must accept abusive behaviour, just because we allow appropriate punishment.

Appropriate punishment should never be considered synonymous with abuse and violence, and to consider it so is more an extremist and unrealistic view of reality than anything else. Nobody wants to be 'punished' and therefore those that have this unrealistic view of a utopian world believe we shouldn't do it. And yet they know at a deeper level, without it chaos is the only possible outcome. As I have said many times and written in many of my articles, no social group on the planet can survive without incorporating punishment to maintain social order.

Do our dogs want to please us?

Whenever we watch a dog that has been trained to do something for its owner or a trainer, many look at the dog and believe all the dog wants to do is please its owner/trainer. However, there is not one command or learnt behaviour that is taught without their being some form of positive reinforcement/incentive for the dog. Dogs, and all animals are instinctively what we as humans would term as selfish. Try training a dog to do anything whereby you just smile to let the dog know you are happy with what it is currently doing for you. No, we have to make the dog feel good about carrying out a behaviour, or the dog will not be interested in doing anything for us. All behaviours for a dog either create pleasant, neutral or unpleasant consequences. A neutral consequence will never condition a dog to do something for you, just because it makes you happy. So those within the positive-only and force-free groups that state that all dogs are wanting to please us, are again living in a fantasyland where dogs will go out of their way to please us. Dogs work for us because they receive positive consequences for doing so, not because they want to work for us out of the goodness of their heart. Many will ask, "well how come if I am sick or feeling down in the dumps my dog will come over to me and comfort me and lay beside me?" For the same reason when you lift your energy to initiate play with your dog, your dog will usually react to your current energy levels. I realise many are going to disagree with me here as they need to feel that their dog really does care about and love them, believing that their dog does have conscious empathy and will comfort them in times of sickness or sadness, and therefore believing that their dog does understand what it is doing at a conscious level and why, and not just acting upon and reflecting the energy of the person.

Does it make us feel good when a dog adopts or reflects our current energy levels, whether that be high energy when wanting to initiate play, or low energy when we feel sick or sad? Of course it does. However, we need to understand the deeper dynamics of this type of behaviour and apparent signs of empathy. Dogs are very sensitive to energy projected by other social members, and will indeed be affected by and therefore even reflect the type of energy they are picking up on within the social group or by other group members. Considering humans are highly emotional creatures, is it any wonder that our dogs pick up on our emotional energy? However, I am not convinced dogs totally understand why they are reacting this way at a conscious level.

There is no greater example of how people now view their dogs at an emotional level then the response this video received. This video went viral on social media, with 100's of thousands believing that this dog was trying to save the fish's life by giving it water to help it breathe. Emotions have become the ruling influence over and above any logic, and this is also influencing how many now react to and relate to their dogs. More children than ever before are being taken to hospitals badly bitten by the 'all loving' family dog. A dog that loves the family so much wouldn't act on genetically inherited instincts now would it? Sadly, for many, they do. 

Are all dogs looking for us to lead them?

This is another concept that has become overly emotional rubbish. If we look at this logically, if every animal was looking for a leader, and hence there is no need to enforce discipline, then how in the animal kingdom can their ever be a leader? Can you imagine how a social group would be with nothing but a group of followers looking for a leader? Dogs are no different to humans or any other social animals. Some are genetically made to lead, and will enforce their authority, unless another in the social group is able to challenge that animals social position. It's this belief that all dogs are looking up to their owner to lead them, and therefore there is no need to enforce rules and boundaries by physical discipline if required, is what is slowly but surely destroying the fabric of our relationship with dogs.

Certainly, there are dogs that are instinctively followers, and therefore lack the genetic instinct to assert dominance over their owners. However, this does not mean that dog owners cannot unintentionally reinforce and strengthen assertive behaviours in their dog, which can then indeed lead to very insecure, overly dependant and anxious dogs. It doesn't matter where on the dominance scale your dog genetically resides, discipline and appropriate punishment when appropriate, to instil rules and boundaries is always important for maintaining a balanced relationship, and an overall emotionally well balanced dog.

graphPunishment should never be viewed as an act of violence or abuse, unless it is indeed conducted and applied in such a manner. But to condition society that we need to outlaw all forms of punishment and their associated tools, is doing our dogs and their owners a grave injustice. No social group can survive without these natural instincts, and that of course goes for our dogs. In the past 18 or so years since the push for the emotive positive-only and force-free ideology, we have seen a dramtic increase in dog aggression towards adults and children, and an increase in those taken to hospital for severe dog bites. The graph (click to make it larger) is a classic example of this upward spiral, and it is continuing to do so at an unacceptable rate within societies that push this emotive ideology, showing increases of 25% and more a year in dog bite hospitalisations.

We need to stop allowing emotions to overrule logic

cogWe have become a society that has allowed emotions to override any sense of logic. The sad part is, even those that are allowing this to happen, know and understand at a deeper level what they are doing, and yet will not override their emotional self to have a more balanced view. The image here explains this better than I possibly could. It's time society woke up to itself, before it is too late, and we have spiraled so far out of control that there is no turning back.

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