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When Punishment Goes Wrong

An increasing number of behavior professionals and professional organizations for trainers and behaviorists are moving away from traditional training, which relied heavily on punishment, physical...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Sep 17th 2010


An increasing number of behavior professionals and professional organizations for trainers and behaviorists are moving away from traditional training, which relied heavily on punishment, physical coercion, and social theories about dogs which have since been disproved; and toward modern dog-friendly training techniques which are effective, efficient, and have less potential to damage your relationship with your dog as well as your dog’s behavior.

One of the most well-established negative side effects of punishment is an increased risk for aggression. The link between punishment and aggression has been proven in research and should be, for the most part, common sense. Defending yourself from a perceived threat is a universal drive that transcends the boundaries of species.

I’ve noticed some other interesting side effects from punishment in my job. Here are a few common side effects:

  1. Failure to respond to recall cue or name
  2. Submissive urination
  3. Inhibition in offering new behavior (“shutting down”)
  4. Poisoned cues. Worst of all is when the handler and the training environment actually become poisoned cues themselves!
  5. Resource guarding
  6. Biting

Aside from these general negative responses to punishment, I’ve seen some more specific “back-firing” of punishment techniques, including but not limited to:

  1. A dog that growled, snapped, and urinated when he heard any sort of digital beeping – cell phones ringing, microwave timers dinging, the tone played on the television during emergency warnings and system tests. When did the behavior start? Shortly after the owner started using a shock collar which gave a beep/tone before issuing the correction.
  2. A dog that developed coprophagia (stool eating) after having her nose rubbed in potty accidents. The owner still had the potty training problem to deal with, only the accidents were now hard to find (and therefore clean appropriately) because the dog was eating her feces. She got in trouble when her owners found the evidence in the house, and decided that hiding the evidence was the easiest way to avoid punishment.
  3. Adult dogs that, as puppies, were heavily punished nearly every time they picked something up in their mouths refuse to retrieve. Due to inadequate management, shoes, socks, or undergarments became favorite chew toys, and the dog was punished severely whenever he’d grab one of these items. Months or years later, these owners hire a trainer, frustrated, because their dogs won’t retrieve anything and the handlers want their dog to enjoy fetching. Because she was taught at a very young age that picking things up in her mouth was dangerous behavior that had unpleasant consequences, training this dog to retrieve willingly and happily can be a great challenge.
  4. A friendly dog gets excited when he is walking on his leash and sees another dog. In his excitement, he loses all sense of self-control and pulls his owner toward the approaching dog. The owner, embarrassed and frustrated with this pulling on leash behavior, puts a prong collar on the dog. Now, whenever a strange dog approaches, our friendly dog gets a collar correction. Through association, he learns that when new dogs approach, bad things happen to him. This can create leash reactivity, contribute to all manners of barrier frustration, and also create redirected aggression toward the handler.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’m sure if I polled my colleagues and dog loving friends, we could add dozens of similar examples of punishment gone wrong. While this author would never argue that punishment is an ineffective training technique (in fact, in the hands of a skilled trainer it can be quite effective), I would argue that even when done correctly, there’s too much risk for fallout. For this reason, I hope that dog owners will educate themselves on alternative, dog-friendly options for training and behavior modification. Your dog will thank you for it!