This is a question that many people ask – either of themselves or their trainer. And it’s honestly a really good one. Typically, when people approach me to help train their dog, they have already decided to try positive reinforcement for one reason or another. Oftentimes someone recommended they try it; sometimes their vets suggest it; other times they’ve done some research themselves- but whatever the reason, they’ve often already chosen he type of training techniques they would be comfortable with using. But what about the people that haven’t “decided”? They deserve a very clear answer on why trainers like me prefer to use positive reinforcement techniques when training dogs- especially when training aggressive, reactive, or strong dogs.
Terminology. Terminology is boring. It’s laden in jargon and tough to decipher. That being said, it’s also important when deciding how to train your dog. What is punishment? Punishment by definition means that if a behavior is followed by something aversive the likelihood of the same behavior occurring again is decreased.
Here’s a scenario:
A 6-month-old puppy jumps up on a person at the door. The person says “NO!”. The puppy jumps up five more times.
Question: Has that behavior been punished?
The answer is no. It may not be something I would do, or would like to see other people do, but in reality, this is not “punishment training”. The future frequency of the behavior did not decrease. My guess is, the puppy didn’t care and may have even found the attention rewarding!
Here’s another scenario:
A 6-month-old puppy jumps up on a person at the door. The person say “NO!” The puppy runs away and hides in the corner.
Question: Has that behavior been punished?
The answer is Yes. The exact same scenario- but a different dog. This dog found the “No!” to be aversive and the jumping behavior decreased. This is the very definition of punishment.
Whether or not this is ethically correct or not is up to you. From my perspective, given that there are ways to train a puppy not to jump without scaring them, I would classify it as unnecessary and therefore unethical. Why scare a puppy? At the same time, I do not think that the person who said no is a bad, dog-hating, person. They just may not have the variety of training tools and knowledge to handle this behavior in a more elegant manner. That’s what trainers are here for- to help you find better, more enjoyable ways to help your dog!
But, WHY? Isn’t saying “No!” and scaring the puppy effective? The answer is a definitive yes in the second scenario. I don't use aversives because I don't like scaring dogs, there are better ways, and there are very real side effects to punishment- not because it is ineffective.
Punishment has several proven side effects. I would argue that these side effects might very occasionally be worth it if we’re talking about a behavior that may kill a dog or make their life completely miserable, but for most dog behavior problems- up to and including dogs that bite people and other dogs- it is not the best, or even second best, option. Here are three of the main side effects:
Emotional and Aggressive Reactions:
Think of kids that tantrum when they’re told “no”; people that lash out when someone tries to pin them down; dogs that re-direct and bite their handler when they are poked or “corrected”. This is the biggest reason I avoid punishment. I don’t want a dog to aggress at their owner or someone in the vicinity due to a reaction to punishment. With a dog that gets yelled at every time someone walks through the door- how long until they decide that people walking through the door are scary and should be chased away?
Escape and Avoidance:
This is the puppy that ran away and hid in the corner. What about the next time someone comes through door? Do you always want your dog to hide from newcomers? What about a dog that won’t return to their owner when called, because by the time they get there, the owner is always angry and annoyed. Avoidance is real- and a really big problem with using these techniques. I want my dogs to want to be near me- not fear that being near me might result in pain or distress.
Punishment reinforces the punisher
This is huge. It’s also one of the reasons that it is so impressive when “traditional trainers” make the switch to training using more modern and less aversive techniques. When you punish a behavior- the behavior decreases. If your goal was to stop that puppy jumping- wow did it work! Whether punishment works is NOT the question. By it’s very definition it works. The question is whether it’s the best way. But we feel very powerful, very in control of the situation, and very clever when we manage to stop behaviors that we find annoying. And if it worked in that situation, why not in another situation? What if I say “No!” when my dog is barking? Is pulling on leash? Is aggressing? When something effectively punishes the behavior of our dog, it is reinforcing to us. This is so insidious and is exactly the reason why people that train with these techniques continue to do so.
Punishment is not right or wrong. It is not good or bad. It has no value judgment and it’s an important piece of learning. We know to watch our feet when getting on an escalator because we tripped once and our inattention was punished. We don’t pick glass bowls full of boiling water out of the microwave because we tried once and got burned. Punishment is integral to learning in many, many ways.
Where I don’t believe it should be used (at least not without an extremely good reason, several concurring behaviorists, and a very solid plan) is in dog training. Where it belongs the least is in basic manners courses or in dealing with fearful or aggressive dogs. Train people to be good, effective trainers, and they can enjoy their dogs and build that relationship instead of having to be in the situation of being their dog’s punisher.
Here are some good resources about punishment and why modern dog training has shifted away from punishment, dominance in training, and the use of aversives:
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Punishment in Training
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals
Several blogs about punishment written by Patricia McConnell can be found here
Victoria Stillwell of It's Me or The Dog fame, weighs in here