Punishment with regard to dogs and dog training is anything that is intended to reduce an undesirable behavior. Shouting, hitting or withholding a toy or affection can all be considered punishment.

Although punishment is a simple concept, many complex variables determine whether punishment will have the intended effect of reducing or eliminating an unwanted behavior.

For all animals, feedback from our environment is essential to our survival. That feedback comes in the form of reinforcement (we drink water and our thirst is satisfied) or punishment (we get too close to a fire and we are punished with a burn).
It is very important to recognize that something you consider punishment may not actually be punishment to your dog. Likewise, something you may not consider punishment may very well be punishment to your dog.

Punishment then is in the eye of the one being punished. Remember, punishment is something that your dog will seek to avoid or escape.

Is Punishment an Effective Way to Train My Dog?
So how useful is punishment as a means for teaching your dog the behaviors you want it to exhibit?

As with most things in life, the answer to that depends.

For punishment to be effective as a means to teach your dog, you must meet three critical elements.

  1. The first element is consistency. The punishment must occur every time an unwanted behavior occurs. If you punish your dog inconsistently for a behavior, your dog will not understand why it is being punished and you will not eliminate the unwanted behavior and may create other problems.
  2. The second element is timing. You must administer the punishment within a second or two of the inappropriate behavior. If you punish your dog even slightly too late, your dog will not know why you are punishing it (or worse, it will think you are punishing it for a behavior completely unrelated to the bad behavior) and the result of your punishment will not change your dog’s behavior. This can harm your dog and lead to a number of very negative unintended and unpredictable consequences.
  3. The last element necessary for punishment to be effective is intensity. The punishment must be unpleasant enough to stop your dog from repeating the unwanted behavior but not enough to frighten or traumatize your dog.

If you get it wrong either way, you will not be happy with the result. It is impossible for anyone to predict the necessary intensity of a punishment to ensure the desired effect in every situation without doing harm.

In the real world, meeting all three of the necessary punishment criteria (consistency, timing and intensity) is virtually impossible and applying punishment incorrectly can have very negative consequences to your dog. Often dog owners continue to punish their dogs because they may see short-term results. However, punishment eventually results in other unwanted behaviors in your dog such as escape, apathy and even aggression.

Since punishment techniques often fail to solve behavior problems, they should not be used as the first training of choice.

The most effective and safest alternative to using punishment in training is to use methods based on reinforcing behaviors that you want your dog to exhibit.

Training methods using positive reinforcement, where your dog is rewarded for the appropriate behaviors you want are safer and more effective with no negative consequences if you get it wrong.

Teaching your dog what to do rather than punishing it for what not to do has huge benefits and no negative side effects.

The many benefits of using positive methods include;

1) more effective in the long-run,

2) strengthens the bond you share with your dog,

3) training sessions are more enjoyable,

4) you can’t hurt or traumatize your dog if you do not get the training exactly right,

5) any member of your family is capable of using reinforcement techniques and

6) positive methods are easily incorporated into your daily routine.

Our family pets desperately seek to gain our approval, love and companionship and they should not live under the constant fear of punishment, especially at the hands of those whose role it is to protect and care for them. If your dog is exhibiting inappropriate behavior, consult a dog behavior specialist.

He or she will help you identify the root cause of the problem and develop an appropriate program using positive reinforcement to replace undesirable behaviors with desirable ones.