Should we punish our dogs?
Is punishment an effective form of stopping undesirable behaviour?
As responsible pet owners, it’s essential for us to understand how to guide our furry companions effectively. When it comes to addressing undesirable behaviour in dogs, the question of punishment often arises.
However, as an expert animal behaviourist as well as a dog trainer with over 45 years hands-on experience, I would like to shed light on why punishment, as traditionally understood, is not an effective approach. Instead, I propose an alternative approach that focuses on positive reinforcement and timely interventions to foster desirable behaviour in our canine friends
Living in the Moment: The Flaw in Traditional Punishment
Dogs, unlike humans, live in the present moment. Their ability to connect consequences to past actions is limited. Therefore, punishing a dog for something they did even just a mere few moments ago generally serves little purpose beyond potentially causing confusion or fear. Canines lack the cognitive capacity to connect the dots between a past act and a subsequent punishment. As responsible pet owners, it is our duty to set realistic expectations and understand the limitations of our dogs’ learning abilities.
Many of the undesirable behaviours that we might wish to punish our dog for are also involuntary, so punishment will not reinforce appropriate behaviour in future.
Here are some examples of when people might use punishment inappropriately with their dogs:
- Rubbing their nose in their urine or faeces if they toilet inside. Toileting is an involuntary behaviour, this will not prevent it happening in future and is not kind. Unless caught in the act they wont make the association you want (I still don’t recommend rubbing their nose in their own mess if you do catch them in the act though).
- Smacking a dog with a shoe, when you come home to find they’ve chewed it. They will not associate the pain of that smack with the act of chewing the shoe unless they’re caught in the act, but doing so even in this case can damage your relationship with your dog.
- Flicking a dog on the nose for licking. Licking is a loving, soliciting behaviour so if you tell your dog off, try to assert yourself or give your dog a smack for licking, they’ll likely want to lick you even more to appease you!
- Shouting at a dog that’s stolen food. Once the food has gone, your dog is not going to associate your raised voice with their action.
All punishment like this will do is affect your bond with your dog as you are associated with the punisher.
Setting them up for Success: Preventing Undesirable Behaviour
As a first port of call, the best thing we can do for our pups and dogs is to set them up for success in their behaviours. Creating an environment that supports desired behaviour is key.
- If a dog tends to raid the rubbish bin, place it in a secured area or use a dog-proof bin to eliminate the opportunity for the unwanted behaviour.
- If your puppy isn’t house trained, don’t allow them to roam the house freely unsupervised.
- If your dog steals food or chews shoes, don’t leave food or shoes where they can reach them.
- If your dog is destructive while you’re out, treat issues like separation anxiety so they are less likely to be destructive when you’re gone.
Positive Reinforcement: Building Trust and Encouraging Good Behaviour
Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that allows us to shape and encourage desirable behaviour in our dogs. By focusing on rewarding good behaviour instead of punishing unwanted actions, we create an environment that fosters trust and cooperation. Dogs are quick to associate positive consequences, such as treats, praise, or playtime, with their actions. This association strengthens the bond between dog and owner, making training more effective and enjoyable for both parties.
I highly recommend clicker training, as by using a clicker you can very clearly and accurately mark the behaviour you want to see from your dog (then follow up with a food reward). This helps dogs learn much more quickly what we want from them.
Catch Them in the Act: The Role of Natural or Apparent Natural Consequences
While traditional punishment may not be effective, there are instances where intervening at the right moment can be appropriate.
If you need to correct your dog for an inappropriate behaviour, it needs to be done in a way that reinforces your bond with them and ideally uses an apparent natural consequence, largely done remotely (at a distance). This is when a correction is given immediately at the time of the undesirable behaviour, in a way that mimics how a dog would learn in nature and is ideally not associated to you.
For example, if your dog has gotten in the habit of chewing a particular sofa leg, cover it with a paste made of vaseline and cayenne pepper. Next time your dog goes to chew that sofa, the cayenne pepper is going to taste very unpleasant and put your dog off chewing that item. The correction comes immediately at the time of the undesirable behaviour, and the correction appears to come from the sofa itself, not from you. Don’t say anything as this is happening, you want to stay totally unassociated. If your dog returns to you after getting that fright, reward with a treat to reinforce that you are safety (thereby reinforcing your bond).
Or similarly, if your dog is digging holes, pop a taut balloon in the holes then cover with a bit of dirt. The next time your dog goes to dig in that hole, POP! That fright will act as a deterrent, and the correction comes from the hole itself, not from you.
Or perhaps your dog is barking at something going past out the window. Wait nearby with a high powered pump action water pistol, then as soon as your dog barks, give them a good squirt. Say nothing, stay totally unassociated.
I am not a positive-only trainer, I believe that contrast is essential to successful dog training. This means as well as having a reward for the right behaviour, there is a consequence for the wrong behaviour. Consequences are normal and happen every day in the real world, and we need to teach our dog healthy boundaries, but we need to do it in a way that is appropriate, not harmful and not damaging to our bond with our beautiful dog. You should always be conscious of where the dog thinks the correction came from. Ideally that’s not you but the cause of the natural consequence.
This is the most important point because dogs need boundaries in the human world as they can get into real trouble if they kill the neighbours cat, bite a person, chase stock or fight with other dogs – all have serious repercussions. Being able to use apparent natural consequences effectively, while positively reinforcing when they choose the right option, is the best way to set the dog up to learn appropriate behaviours while still maintaining a strong positive bond.
Redirection is also a very useful tool, e.g. if your puppy is biting you, grab a dog toy and shake it around enticingly for them. If they then choose to bite and chew on the toy instead of you, praise them heartily.
Timing and Consistency: Key Elements for Success
When employing positive reinforcement or natural consequences, timing is crucial. Dogs need to associate the reward or redirection with the specific behaviour we wish to address. Promptly intervening or reinforcing desired behaviour greatly increases the chances of the dog understanding the connection between their actions and the outcome. Additionally, consistency is vital in training. Reinforcing good behaviour consistently and redirecting or providing alternatives for undesirable behaviour helps dogs understand what is expected of them.
As responsible pet owners, it is our duty to understand and adapt our training methods to suit our dogs’ cognitive abilities and emotional well-being. Traditional punishment may not be effective due to dogs living in the moment. However, by focusing on positive reinforcement, timely interventions, and natural consequences, we can encourage desirable behaviour and build a stronger bond with our four-legged companions.