Dogs: the Art of Intelligent Punishment

A rational look at punishment in dog training
By Laure-Anne Visele, Nov 2012

The issue of punishment is one of the stickiest issues in the dog world.

There are two extremes, and a flurry in the middle:

  • Team right: extremely compulsion-based trainers: You get bonus points for hanging your dog up when he does not sit on command.
  • Team left: extremely positive trainers: You get kicked out for raising your voice to your dog.

My position is this:

  • Ethically, I am pretty left.
  • In  theory, I understand that punishment can be effective for certain problems.
  • In practice, there are simply too many backlashes to using punishment, and hardly any civilian knows how to do it effectively, so why bother?
Now, let’s look at it purely from the scientific perspective of behaviourism, shall we? You will often hear dog trainers argue about positive punishment and quadrants. This is the low down:

Skinner: On punishment and reward

B F Skinner (1904 – 1990) was an American experimental psychologist. He was a leading figure in the field of behaviourism, and even claimed he could use operant conditioning to get an animal to perform any physically possible behaviour. The principles of Operant Conditioning form the largest theoretical pillar of dog training today.

So, consequences can be:

  • Reinforcers: Increase how likely it is the behaviour happens again; or
  • Punishers: Decrease how likely it is the behaviour happens again.

And consequences can be:

  • Positive: Adding or starting something like petting or a hitting; or
  • Negative: Withdrawing or interrupting something like petting or hitting.

And there you have your Operant Conditioning Quadrant:

  • Positive Reinforcement (R+): Good behaviour -> Pleasant consequence (e.g. dog gets a treat).
  • Negative Reinforcement (R-): Good behaviour -> Unpleasant stimulus stops (e.g. removing hand from dog’s back when it finally sits)
  • Positive Punishment (P+): Bad behaviour -> Unpleasant stimulus starts (e.g. shouting, startling the dog, jerking the leash)
  • Negative Punishment (P-): Bad behaviour -> Pleasant stimulus stops (e.g. stop walking when dog pulls on the leash).
Let me show you graphically:

Here’s a little riddle suggested to me by the author of the Koda Diaries:

Dog sits -> Dog gets a biscuit -> Dog sits less and less.

Question: What is the biscuit in this situation: R+, R-, P+, or P-?

……….. (drum roll)

Answer: P+. The dog in this example finds receiving a biscuit unpleasant, so the biscuit is a positive punishment in this case!

So, to bring this baby back into the real world, I am not against punishment (punishment can also, technically, mean removing the carrot). What I am against is the use of aversives like intimidation or pain.

1. Timing: The art of quick delivery

Now imagine you are determined to use positive punishment. That’s your prerogative. But remember what I said about most civilians wouldn’t know how to do it effectively? This is what I mean. If you’re going to shout at your dog, make sure you are shouting for the right behaviour. There is no point in telling off your dog for chewing your furniture hours after the fact. Why is that?

Here’s what Poochie has done after committing the “crime”:

  • chewed furniture
  • scratched its ear
  • had a bit of a sniff in the kitchen
  • barked at the neighbour’s cat
  • had a nap
  • sprung to the door at the sound of your keys
  • greeted your return
  • got told off

Which behaviour do you think he thinks you’re shouting about? What’s worse, he might link your return with shouting. Suddenly your arrival will be a bit of a mixed blessing.

“But my dog knows it did wrong. He has this guilty look.”  I hate to bust anyone’s bubble, but isn’t it more likely that he is trying to appease you because, well, you’ve sometimes been shouting at him when you got home for reasons he cannot fathom?

Dogs do not have moral sense, and definitely don’t know the difference between your Prada shoes as your old slippers. They think it terms of chewiliciousness, not dollars.

So what can you do?

  • (if you find the mess too late) Nothing much, really. The damage is done. Make sure you don’t leave these things lying around when the dog is unsupervised
  • Catch him in the act and then use a positive interrupter (see video below) to stop it

It’s disheartening, I know: instead of Lassie saving the orphans, you have to spell out to your canine genius that chewing shoes = not OK. But the sooner you adjust your expectations, the more effective you will be.

2. Bad boy, good boy: how to keep them apart

This is a mistake I make again and again, so you’re not on your own.

If you reprimand your dog (Say you say ‘Hey!’ if you catch him doing something naughty), try not to praise him seconds afterwards (for stopping the unwanted behaviour). Depending on the intensity of the telling-off (often decidedly half-baked), he might come to see it as the predictor of praise. Perverse, isn’t it?

So, even if the dog complied quickly and willingly after being chastised, you would need to leave it a few seconds before starting the cooing fest again. To avoid that pitfall, how about interrupting unwanted behaviour with a positive interrupter (video above). And of course, you could guide your dog towards a desired behaviour, which you can then reward. We call these incompatible behaviour, because they are incompatible with being naughty.

3. Root causes: Useful fellows

In some circumstances, you can take a good guess at the cause of a behaviour.

Take barking:

  • Is the dog guarding or protecting something or someone?
  • attention-seeking?
  • demanding something?
  • excited?
  • scared?
  • etc.

Often, knowing the root cause can help you find the appropriate response.

  • Guarding:
    • Teach the dog to bark on demand, and then teach him to be quiet on demand. Then you can teach him to be quite after, say, three barks. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and you can’t expect him to get what ‘hush’ means without being taught first.
    • Acknowledge the ‘threat’ the dog has spotted, so the dog’s mission is accomplished.
    • If he is obsessing about something outside, try to distract him.
    • And if it’s quite bad, you could try counterconditioning and desensitization.
  • Barking for attention or demanding something: Ignore him until a few seconds after he stops. If you shout at him, you could inadvertently reinforce the behaviour: he got the attention he wanted.
  • Aggressive barking: Please contact a behaviour therapist if this is frequent or concerning you in any way. I can help if you are in The  Hague or region.
  • Excited or demanding barking:
    • Wait until he has stopped barking before giving the goods (e.g. opening the door to go for a walk). If not, he may create a superstitious link between his barking and going for a walk.
    • You may want to desensitise him to what is over-exciting him. You could repeatedly ring the doorbell for example. Without it being systematically followed by guests, or postmen, the doorbell will loose some of its predictive value that something out-of-this-world exciting is about to happen.
  • Fear barking:
    • This is where desensitization and counterconditioning can work wonders.
    • If the fear is a downright phobia, contact a behaviour therapist as do-it-yourself therapy can make matters worse. Again, I can help if you are in The Hague or closeby.
  • Lunging and barking at another dog: If you shout, they might interpret that as you barking along, and it certainly won’t do anything to decrease the aggression. There are specific protocols to deal with dog-dog aggression, check them out.

I’ve used the example of barking here but my point is: think before you shout.

4. Proportionality: Are we overreacting?

The ‘alpha-roll’… That epitome of disproportional punishments. It involves forcibly rolling the dog over onto its back and pinning him down.

So why is it disproportional?

  • If you really must look at (gray) wolves as models (see this article if you are interested in the wolf-dog fallacies), the closest thing to the  ‘alpha-roll’, is the winner preparing to ritually tear out the throat of the looser (‘ritually’, it would not normally result in actual injury). Hefty stuff, though, you’ll agree. Kind of like pointing a gun to your kid’s face for spilling milk.

Leash jerks are another infamous aversive method. I cringe when I see someone do this. I have no doubt that they love their dog, but it’s just plain misguided and barbaric.

The thing is, leash jerking does not seem all that effective in comparison to other methods on the market. Check this out:

  • Leash pulling: Try Ian Dunbar’s green light – red light method instead. Stop walking when the leash is taut, and start again when it’s slack. It is a lot more effective (see how many people are still leash jerking after months of ‘training’?). Sure the green light/red light takes a while, but at least it eventually works, and you don’t end up looking like a giant animal abuser in the park.
  • Leash jerking: Leash jerks can actually worsen lunging and other unwanted behaviour. It exacerbates the dog’s aversion towards whatever made him lunge in the first place. Read this article if you are having issues with dog-dog aggression.

So before you get the H-bomb out, why not try to find a more proportional approach?

5. Generalisation: Yes, they really can be THAT stupid

Dogs are great at linking instructions to very very very (very) specific contexts. This makes them grand masters at discrimination, but it can leave you puzzled as to why Teddy the Lab will sit on command in the kitchen, but look at you with his cute perplex eyes when you ask in the park. Depending on the skill and the dog, it could be that you need to brush up some exercises in a couple of different environments before the dog “generalises” them.

So, if your dog is performing poorly in a different location, don’t automatically assume he’s being rebellious. Just go back to basics and teach him the behaviour again, but in the new place. It won’t take nearly as long as the first time, and the dog will show a way more reliable response.

6. Fluency: How well does he really grasp it?

Dogs can perform exercises at varying levels of fluency. And we often demand flawless performance for a skill they barely grasp. If your dog is not responding that reliably, it could be that he’s simply not that fluent in it yet. There’s one easy way to find out: would you bet fifty euros he can do it? No? Then it’s back to the drawing board with you and Teddy again (thank you Laura Van Arendonk-Baugh for this great tip).

“So when can I start asking for more?” I hear you wonder. Here’s how you do it: try it out over a few days. If Teddy complies 8 times out of 10 consistently across a few days, it looks like he gets it. If not, revisit the previous training step. Sounds fairer than chastising him for performing badly on a skill that he does not quite master, doesn’t it?

The reason we over-demand is the Lassie syndrome again: we would all love a dog who gets it immediately. But the thing is, the majority of dogs simply aren’t one-trial learners for the majority of skills.

7. Extenuating circumstances: motivational state

I’ve had my fair share of non-Lassies

If your dog is feeling stressed, distracted, or tired, it will affect his performance. Just like it does ours. And guess what? Stressed, distracted and tired pretty much sums up the mood of most dogs in evening group training lessons.

So if your dog is facing more challenging circumstances, please cut him some slack and lower your criteria a bit. Don’t just assume he’s being rebellious. He is just not coping that well in tricky settings.

If you really want him to perform 100% in these circumstances, then teach the fundamentals of the skill again, but in these settings. Teach him to be fluent even in this distracting environment. And make sure you bring ‘combat treats’, mind, because if he has to ignore something really distracting, your treats had better be super attractive.

8. Crime scene: Was there even a crime?

We instinctively vilify some of our dog’s behaviour when, often it is quite innocent. Take growling, for example. As DogWilling’s Leah Roberts puts it: “Is it ok for you to say, I’m afraid? Then it’s OK for your dog to growl.”

Fair enough, growling is not always motivated by fear, but if it is, chastising your dog makes matters worse. If your dog growls frequently and you’re at a loss as to why, it might be time to contact a behaviour therapist, rather than attempting to correct the issue yourself. You know the drill. If you need a bit of help and are around The Hague, I can come over and take a look.

And let’s not talk of the countless innocent things that get the dominant stamp:

  • Going through a door before us
  • Nudging for attention
  • Sleeping in an elevated place like the couch
  • etc.

Punishing a dog for doing this is akin to bleeding out your humours to cure a cold. It is so outdated and unfounded, and has no place in a rational, ethical society.

9. Gradation: Let’s go with a bang

If you’re going to use an aversive, go out with a bang.

Gradually shifting the intensity from a near-whisper to a full-blown shout does not make much sense. If the dog is being naughty and, I don’t know, eating horse poo, it’s fine to start with one soft ‘no’. But what you see then, is most people escalate and gradually shout louder and louder.

Seems counter-intuitive, as we are all striving for dogs who will stop with a whisper of a no, but you have to work on that. It won’t happen without practice and it’s unfair to expect that of him. But whatever you do, drop the ineffective warnings. “Going gradual” would result in the dog:

  • Ignoring the gazillion warnings until it gets ridiculously loud (learned irrelevance for us geeks).
  • If you are prone to using physical punishment to steer your dog’s behaviour, consider this: you stand a real chance of having to use harsher and harsher punishment as the dog gradually gets used to the lower end of rough treatment (habituation for us geeks). I say don’t open the Pandora’s box in the first place.

10. Violence: A touchy subject

Call me a New Age hippy if you will, but I cannot stomach violence, and here’s what falls in that category as far as I am concerned:

  • Leash jerks
  • Electric collars
  • Choke collars
  • Prong collars
  • Electric fences
  • etc.

Don’t be fooled by benign-sounding products: if it uses pain to manage a behaviour, it’s painful. If it wasn’t painful or at least extremely unpleasant or scary, it wouldn’t work.

A little side point on electric collars: if they are volume-triggered, can’t they conceivably go off even when your dog is not barking? A loud truck or the door bell would be enough, then, no? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to find out on my dog.

Putting my personal views aisde, here is a list of disadvantages of using aversive-based methods in training:

  • Frequent violence leads many dogs to become fearful of their owners. Just look at their body language.  Some dogs become “hand-shy” and shrink (or bite) at an approaching hand.
  • Violent punishments can exacerbate behaviour problems for phobic, anxious, nervous or over agitated dogs.
  • Using aversives to stop a behaviour can be expedient, granted. But in the long-term, a behaviour taught through rewards is more resistant to extinction. And you haven’t damaged the relationship in the process.
  • Many dogs who are frequently trained with aversive methods will shut down (learned helplessness). They won’t be showing unwanted behaviour, because they have lost spontaneity. They are shadow of dogs, robots. Do you want a companion, or a prisoner of war?

Before you worry about spoiling the dog, note that force-free training has produced armies of reliably trained and extremely polite canine citizens.

But what it boils down to, for me, is this: If there is an alternative method with equally acceptable results, why would I choose the unpleasant one?

11. Be sneaky

But you said 10 points!? Sorry guys, I lied. I was reminded of this point by the author of the Koda Diaries, and it’s just too important to pass.

When it comes to punishing your dog, we ideally want him to associate the punishment with the deed rather than with you. You could, for example, booby trap the bin with something loud, so Mr. Thief has a nasty surprise when he tries to scavenge the bin.

So why sneaky?

  • Best for your relationship: you don’t get so much of the “owner = sometimes nasty” thing going on, and
  • The dog is less likely to indulge in the unwanted behaviour in your absence.
The problem with this strategy is that it can backfire. You could end up with a dog who got so startled that he developed a superstitious aversion to some random object or situation that happened to have been around when the booby trap went off. And now, Teddy won’t even go into the kitchen…


The use of aversives in training is one of the most hotly debated topics in dog training, and passions can run high. I have my personal views on the morals, but I think that they are reasonably backed up by real-life efficacy and side effect concerns with the use of aversives in training.


For reviews on some of these books, go to Canis bonus dog book reviews.


As ever, I value your comments. I would particularly like to hear your view if you:

  • Are you a dog professional having to frequently position yourself in that minefield of a topic?
  • Are you confused about, firmly against, or have reservations about force-free training methods?
  • Are you, like me, an advocate for force-free training?

Further reading

If you’re interested in a broader view, this is the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour published this position statement on punishment.
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