Punishment Shouldn’t Be Part of the Solution

I am hesitant to read articles about dog training. While it is my passion, dog training is also an unregulated field. Teachers, veterinarians, doctors, lawyers, and most professions require certification. Dog training is not on that extensive list.

The most recent article I came across discussed “correcting the bad behavior” a dog displays as part of a company’s training approach. The reason they gave for their approach was that correcting the dogs’ bad behaviors gives the owners multiple approaches to get “compliance” from their dog, and they do not have to rely on just treats or just a shock collar.  The article goes on to say the balanced approach of treats and shock collars “sets the owner up to succeed” when one method is not working and that using multiple methods “gives the dog clarity.”

Here’s the problem: while the owner might eventually get the desired response from their dog, it is only because they are first setting their dog up to fail and then correcting their dog for failing. To me, that is creating confusion in the training, not clarity.

Creating Clarity in Dog Training

When setting up training activities, I make sure to give a dog clarity by doing everything possible to help the dog understand precisely what is being asked of it while limiting its ability to do the undesired behavior. I’ll use the goal of not barking and lunging at another dog as an example.

1. Manage the environment.

Make sure that the dog cannot practice the unwanted behavior or potentially make the wrong choice. Covering the windows so the dog cannot bark at dogs going past the house, walking in an area where the chance of encountering off-leash dogs is decreased, and making sure the neighbor’s dog is not outside before stepping out the door are a few options. If the dog is put only into situations it can handle, then the owner is preventing the opportunity to lunge in the first place.

Not managing the environment or purposely putting a dog in a situation to “correct” or punish the dog is confusing, builds frustration in the dog, and sets him up to fail.

2. Figure out exactly what you want the dog to do.

“What would you like your dog to do instead of lunging?” This is a question that I ask owners, and their answer is usually the same: “Just don’t lunge.” But what does not lunging look like? It might be moving away from the window, continuing to walk by the yard with the dog, turning and walking in the other direction, checking in with the owner, or a combination of behaviors.  The dog will not understand what it is supposed to do if the owner does not already have a clear idea of the final trained behavior.

3. Break the behavior down into small steps.

Not barking at a dog walking past the house seems like a simple task, but it is really a combination of behaviors. A dog must be able to see the dog walking by the house, feel calm enough to disengage from the dog, then remain disengaged long enough to walk away. Each piece needs to be worked on individually before they are combined. The “behavior chain” will break if even just one piece of it is not strong.

4. Proof the behavior.

Just because your dog has learned not to bark at a small fluffy white dog that passes your home does not mean that he will do the same for a big black dog. Nor does it mean that he will not bark out the window of the car. A dog must practice skills in various situations and environments before it can be successful.

This process can take months or even years.

A Team Approach to Successful Dog Training

Instead of the primary training objective being the owner’s “success” where punishment tactics might be used, we should look at the success of both the owner and dog as a team, then answer these questions:

  • What needs to be done so the team can be successful while enjoying the training process?
  • If the dog is unable to perform the activity correctly, what are the smaller steps that can be identified and accomplished first, before combining them to achieve the overall goal?
  • How can the owner manage the environment and prevent setbacks so that unwanted behaviors are not practiced?
  • What reinforcers does the dog enjoy, and how can they be used as reinforcers?

    Prioritizing Emotional Well-Being in Behavior Modification

Rather than focusing on achieving results through “compliance,” the primary objective of behavior modification should prioritize the dog’s emotional well-being during the entire journey. The dog should be excited at the opportunity to train with its owner instead of being wary of the process. This approach can help to build a stronger bond between the owner and the dog, resulting in long-lasting results and a happier, more confident dog.

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Terri R
Terri R
7 months ago

I like this approach. We have 2 small yet fierce lungers. We close the blinds and do everything we can to prevent lunging and barking opportunities. They work. We are working on staying calm with the dogs and rewarding with praise and pets when they stay calm. Knowing that this will be a long road is reassuring and will help keep us on this path. Thank you.

Brigitte Barton
7 months ago

This is a proper “Tori” article. I wish there were more trainers in our industry who understood dogs as well as you do, Tori!

6 months ago

Hi Tori. Ever since I heard you at Ness Jones summit I have read and love your work.
Congratulations on a great article

Robyn Youl
Robyn Youl
6 months ago

My major problem with humans using punishment is that they are imposing a moral human code that simply has no relevance in the life of another species. They are not behaving as the courteous guardian of the dog whose umwelt is so very different to their own. It also worries me that some fellow humans seem to feel empowered by inflicting anxiety or physical pain on a hapless non-human. These humans lack the imagination, empathy and intellect to precisely envisage the desired behaviour and the tiny incremental steps needed to enhance the dog’s desire to offer that behaviour. Learning happens… Read more »

Shelly Cavallaro
Shelly Cavallaro
6 months ago

It pains me when I see the descriptions of training like you describe. Not only is it confusing, but for me it went terribly wrong and I lost trust from my dog. It DAMAGED our relationship and I still have guilt around that. Now, we are THRIVING using positive methods and I have NO regrets! Thank you for addressing this!

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