Updated: Jun 6
In aid of helping their dogs to become obedient and well-adjusted members of human society, many people seek advice on how to train their dogs through a variety of avenues including the internet, social dog groups or television shows. While these sources provide free information they often stem from misinformation about dogs or individual, opinion based perspectives. Television shows are incredibly difficult to gauge as the viewer will assume the person they are watching is an educated source of information, however we know this to be untrue with the likes of dog whisperers and more recently dog fathers. Neither of those presenters hold an academic background of any kind in canine behaviour yet both are there, offering unsuitable guidance on common issues to the masses. Even in the dog world, there is debate among trainers concerning the ideal and most effective technique in which to train or modify a dog's behaviour, but studies conclude that there is no such debate. Positive training (also known as R+) offers the learner an opportunity to grow in understanding as well as learn coping skills. Punishment will offer the dog no such opportunities. Corrections can often lead to an increase in aggression, anxiety and fear in relation to the human guardian, other humans, other dogs or environmental factors. Many will attest that punishment can work to stop a behaviour at the moment that it is occurring and this is true. However, the repercussions of using corrections, even when in conjunction with reward-based training (the combination of which is known as “balanced training”) far outweigh the benefit of what can look like a quick solution to end "bad" behaviour.
Punishment may produce the outcome which the human desires, but at a heavy cost to the dog and the relationship you may aspire to have with them. In cases involving dangerous behaviour where the stakes are high such as aggression punishment can cause the dog to shut down its emotional response. Shutdown dogs are experiencing learned helplessness. This is a physiological state in which the dog stops responding against an aversive stimulus. They have given up. Learned helplessness can occur in severely neglected or abused dogs as well as training which includes punishment. Often the dog appears to be “well behaved” to a layperson while a canine professional will be able to pick up on the dog’s body language and behaviour as abnormal.
What the dog finds aversive is individual. Some dogs may respond aversively to a lowered human tone of voice and others may endure much more before finally breaking. The latter leading to an increasing scale of punishment as the trainer or guardian may feel the dog "just doesn't listen" or is "stubborn" and "hard to train". Shut down dogs no longer can engage in expressing emotions about a situation which is causing them discomfort or stress, however this does not mean that the dog no longer has those emotions. They are simply aware that the human at the other end of leash no longer cares to listen. Outwardly this may look curative, however behaviour does not dissipate, it evolves into new forms. A dog who has been corrected too many times while on lead may go on to have poor recall as being close to the human involves punishment. We welcome a dog into our home to be part of our family or sometimes our only family. We share our lives with them and they listen while we talk, but silencing your dog with punishment can leave the conversation one sided. Worse still, your dog doesn't enjoy being around you.
In a 2009 study by Herron et al. 107 dog guardians were surveyed on the methods which they used to train their dog in relation to problematic behaviours such as aggression to familiar people (48%) and unfamiliar people (48%). Although the participants of the study were looking to alleviate their dog’s negative reactions to aversive stimuli, approximately 40% of the individuals reported that their dogs responded with increased aggression when they used the confrontational techniques of punishment such as physical manipulation of the dog’s body, "growling" at the dog and forcing open their mouth to release items.
Coren (2012) urges that while discipline-based approaches to dog training are highlighted as having beneficial outcomes in books, on the internet and on television shows the repercussions of these methods on dogs parallel to studies where punishment has been used with young children. Canine cognition levels mirror that of children in the 2 to 2 and a-half-year old age range (Coren, 2013). Unlike mixed recommendations which can occur within the professional dog training community, the majority of paediatric medical professionals do not support the use of punishment as an effective way to modify a child’s behaviour (Taylor et al., 2019).
In a 2010 study by Taylor et al. it was concluded that frequent use of punishment (spanking a child more than two times in a month) in 3 year-old children lead to a 49% increase in those children’s aggressiveness by the age of 5. While punishment can be highly effective in eliminating undesirable behaviour within the moment which it is occurring, the learner is simply left with rudimental information that they were incorrect yet no alternatives in how to behave in the situation if they should encounter it again (Burns & Dobson, 2012). Punishment is linked to a dog’s reduced ability to effectively learn new tasks, reluctance to engage with strangers or novel objects and engage in a reduced amount of play behaviours. In dogs trained using positive reinforcement the opposite is found to be true, these dogs trend on having increased welfare opportunities, close relationships with their human and amplified abilities to learn new tasks (Rooney & Cowan, 2011).
Puppies who were able to attend a structured, well-run puppy classes using only positive reinforcement were found to experience less behavioural issues (such as aggression and noise phobia) than puppies which did not attend a puppy class or attending ones with balanced training methods. The puppies who attended classes went on to pick up further training much more easily than those who did not. These puppies were also less likely to be relinquished later on in life (Cutler et al. 2017).
The use of only positive reinforcement is critical to the success of dogs, our relationships with them and their ability to thrive. The use of positive reinforcement training caries far less risk of creating an unstable, shut down dog who has a high probability of emotionally struggling to cope in their environment and with other creatures, including humans. Choose your professional wisely, your dog’s life and the quality of it depends on your choice.
Burns, R. B. & Dobson, C. B. 2012. Introductory Psychology. Publisher: Springer Science & Business Media
Coren, S. 2012. Is Punishment an Effective Way to Change the Behavior of Dogs? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/canine-corner/201205/is-punishment-effective-way-change-the-behavior-dogs
Coren, S. 2013. Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/canine-corner/201303/which-emotions-do-dogs-actually-experience
Cutler, J. H., Coe, J. B., & Niel, L. (2017). Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 251(12), 1415–1423. doi:10.2460/javma.251.12.1415
Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1-2), 47–54. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3-4), 169–177. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007
Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J., & Rice, J. C. 2010. Mothers’ Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children’s Aggressive Behavior. PEDIATRICS, 125(5), e1057–e1065. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-2678
Ziv, G. (2017). The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 19, 50–60. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004