The dog training world can be a passionate and widely divisive one. Broadly speaking, there are two main types of training. Those that rely on using force-free, positive reinforcement techniques, and those that rely on aversives techniques and punishment (sometimes used alongside some positive training too admittedly).
In this article, we hope to help you understand why using reward-based techniques instead of punishment is recommended.
What Are Aversives in Dog Training?
When we refer to Punishment in this article we are generally referring to a stimulus that your dog seeks to avoid or escape because it is unpleasant or uncomfortable. These are often referred to as Aversive Techniques or Tools. They can be as simple as shouting in a harsh tone, to much more extreme things like a shock collar. Some common examples of aversives in dog training include:
- Harsh leash corrections to try to stop pulling
- Choke or prong collars for pulling, or to control a strong or aggressive dog
- Spray collars which will emit a puff of compressed air into your dogs face when they bark, or ones that are controlled by remote to stop aggressive behavior or improve recall, for example
- Shock collars/fences often used for controlling aggressive behavior or preventing escape from an unfenced garden
- Rattle bottles to startle your dog and stop them in the midst of an undesired behavior
- Shouting at your dog when they do something undesirable
- Holding your puppies mouth shut when they nip or mouth you
- Pushing your dog’s face into the spot where they have had an accident in the house
- Pushing your dog’s butt onto the floor when they won’t sit
- Prods or jabs with your finger, hand, heel or knee when they show undesired behavior (perhaps jumping up, pulling on the leash, barking or showing aggression)
- Using threatening body language to try to intimidate the dog
- Pinning your dog to the floor in an ‘Alpha Roll’ to prevent bad behavior and exert your dominance over them
Choke and Prong Collars are common examples of aversive tools that are used for training
What are ‘Dominance’ Theories in Dog Training?
Alongside these aversive techniques in dog training, often this is accompanied by a theory that dogs are pack animals and that if we do not take the dominant/alpha position over them then they will seek to become dominant over us. Training that works based on these theories is often referred to as ‘Rank Reduction Programmes’. There are a number of different strategies often suggested as part of this approach and some of these include:
- Not allowing your dog onto the sofa or your own bed
- Always making sure that you go through a door before them
- Always eat before your dog
- Don’t allow your dog to jump up as they are only trying to dominate you
Why Dominance Based Theories Are Outdated?
Okay, so allowing your dog to jump up on everyone is probably not a good idea, especially if they are a big dog. It can be a bit much and could even cause injury, especially to children. Dogs that jump up, however, are not doing it because they want to dominate us. Most of the time it is because they are excited to see us and want to show their affection or perhaps even seek reassurance.
Your dog is also not trying to dominate you by ousting you from your favourite spot on the sofa. They are usually just doing it because it is comfy and they like it. If they start to growl when you try to move them it is usually because they are trying to resource guarding something that is highly prized to them, something they really covet and don’t want it taken off them. They may have learnt that if they growl you leave them in peace. Rather than punishing this or stopping them from enjoying the comfy spot, it is better to teach them they will be rewarded when they get off the sofa when asked.
These theories were established in the belief that because dogs are descended from wolves, and wolves are pack animals, then the same principles should apply for dog training.
Well, apart from the fact that dogs are not wolves, they are separated by thousands of years of evolution, it has also been proven that these pack theories are not applicable in wolf packs anyway.
Renowned Wolf Expert and Scientist, David Mech, has written extensively about wolf packs, their formation and their behaviors and has explained that the belief that there is a constant fight in the hierarchy to be ‘alpha’ in the pack is outdated and unfounded.
If you want to read more about the distinct, scientifically proven, differences between wolves and dogs then I recommend reading the Coppingers book: Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution.
If you are interested in understanding more about Wolves then I would recommend David Mech’s book written alongside Luigi Boitani: Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation.
If you want to understand more about why rank reduction programmes and dominance-based training are better left alone then I would recommend reading the very comprehensive Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction by Barry Eaton.
Training theories that suggest that dogs are like wolves and wolves have a dominance hierarchy have been proven to be misguided
Why Is Punishment Problematic in Dog Training?
While there is no denying that sometimes using aversive, punishment-based training techniques can sometimes have the desired effect, often it can only be a quick fix that will not last long term and it can also cause more problems than good, sometimes in an extreme fashion. Detailed below are some of the reasons why punishment can be problematic.
Suppression Rather Than Cure
Often aversive tools may stop your dog from doing an undesired behavior but it is not curing the problem, only teaching them to suppress the behavior.
Take a choke collar, for example, you may find that, after a number of consistently harsh jerks on each walk, your dog does not pull on the leash when they are wearing it. But if you then try to walk your dog without the choke collar, it is most probable that they will continue to pull on the leash. Okay, so some people will argue that they will then just always use a choke collar. The trouble with this is that it can then cause long term damage to the throat and can mean that your dog is not enjoying their walk experience as much as they would if they did not have the discomfort of a tightening collar and painful corrections.
Increased Chance of Aggressive behavior
Sometimes this suppression of behavior can be an even more serious issue. If your dog acts aggressively towards other dogs or strangers because they are frightened of them, if you then put a shock collar on them and use it anytime they exhibit any undesired behavior towards another dog, it is likely that they will stop barking, growling or lunging at that moment. The problem with this though is that the dog will still have that fear of the other dog, and now they may also be learning to be distrustful of you. Over time, with every anxiety-inducing encounter, coupled with a painful shock, the fear can intensify and one day they become so frightened that a much more extreme reaction is elicited from the dog.
Sometimes continual use of punishment can push a dog too far and then it can make them react more aggressively as a result. This is when dog bites are more likely to occur.
Studies have shown that the use of punitive training techniques can actually increase the chances of aggressive behavior
Erosion of the Bond Between Dog and Owner
By training using force, fear or intimidation you are teaching your dog to be mistrustful of you. Do you really want a relationship founded on this basis? Surely having a relationship based on trust, engagement and happiness is the better option?
It Can Cause an Increase in Fearful behavior
For any dog, using punishment can cause them to become fearful. If a dog is already anxious or fearful then by punishing them for the way they react to the stimulus that frightens them, you can actually make their fear worse and, as a result, their reaction can get even stronger. Sometimes, it can actually make your dog fearful when there was no fear in the first place too.
So, for example, if your dog is frightened of other dogs. If every time they pass a dog, they get a harsh leash correction, or worse, a shock from a collar, if they show signs of being uncomfortable, this may just reinforce for them that interactions with other dogs mean bad things happen and make them want to avoid them even more.
You Can Dampen Your Dog’s Motivation to Train
If you are working on obedience training, for example, and you are using punitive techniques to train the dog, they are unlikely to come bounding into the training arena, excited to get started. You are unlikely to have a dog that is eager to work and learn if you train them with aversives. This can mean that they will learn more slowly, shut down more easily and not maintain their focus so well.
A dog that is trained using aversives will be less motivated to train than one using positive reinforcement
It Often Does Not Teach Your Dog To Offer a More Desired behavior Instead
If you are not rewarding your dog for the things you want them to do and only correcting the things you don’t want, sometimes it can be confusing for your dog and it is difficult for them to know what behavior you expect from them in place of the one you are correcting.
The Punishment Level Often Has To Increase Over Time
If you are using a shock collar, for example, your dog may gradually become desensitized to the pain with frequent use. This can result in the power of the shock having to be turned up. In some extreme cases, this can cause awful burns to develop on the dog’s neck.
How Does Positive Reinforcement Dog Training Work?
When you are using positive, force-free training methods this involves rewarding the behavior that you do want, instead of punishing the dog for behavior you don’t. It often involves food rewards but it can involve anything that is reinforcing for your dog; praise, affection, toys, playing with other dogs, etc.
Why Positive Dog Training is More Beneficial?
There are lots of reasons why we recommend positive reinforcement over the use of punishment. Apart from anything else, science tells us that it is more effective. There have been numerous studies showing the impact of both reward-based and punitive training methods and the punitive methods always come out as being less effective and potentially more damaging. In 2017 the Journal of Veterinary behavior published a comprehensive review of the effects of aversives in dog training and it illustrated perfectly how punishment based techniques can be potentially physically and mentally damaging to a dog.
Some of the benefits evidenced by using reward-based techniques effectively include:
- Dogs learn faster than being trained by punitive methods
- Dogs are more motivated and engaged when learning
- It creates a healthy relationship between you and your dog
- Your dog will bond with you and trust you more
- It can be confidence building, especially for nervy dogs
- It helps your dog understand exactly what you want from them
- It is less stressful for the owner too, rewarding behavior rather than having to be harsh feels better
- It is a form of training that can involve the whole family (you couldn’t and shouldn’t expect your child to ‘alpha roll’ your dog)
- Your dog can learn to love things they used to fear or dislike
- If you get it wrong with positive training you are generally not going to make the situation worse
Dogs that are training with force free methods will have a more trusting bond with their owner
What is Negative Punishment and Why is it Not Bad?
There can be a lot of technical terms thrown about when it comes to dog training and learning theory. Sometimes it can be useful to understand a little more about these principles. Dogs commonly learn through operant conditioning. This is when a behavior is modified by using reinforcement or punishment.
There are four quadrants to operant conditioning:
This is the one we have been talking about above. This is when something is added after the dog has performed the behavior, most often a treat reward, and it increases the likelihood of the behavior happening again. We like Positive Reinforcement!
This is when something is added after the behavior and this will then decrease the likelihood of the behavior happening again. This is the most common form of punishment we see. This would include giving your dog a shock or a harsh jerk on the lead after they have barked at another dog. We don’t like Positive Punishment!
This is when something is removed after the behavior and this will then increase the likelihood of the behavior happening again. So, for example, this could be forcing your dog into a sit position and then releasing the force once they are staying in position. Or, in a more extreme example, a trainer may continually shock a dog while they are barking at another dog and only stop the shock after they have stopped barking. We don’t like Negative Reinforcement!
This is when something is removed after the behavior and this will then decrease the likelihood of the behavior happening again. The term makes it sound like this is a bad technique, but actually, it is another one that can be used alongside positive reinforcement techniques to help you achieve success in training without using force.
One of the easiest examples of negative punishment in action to visualise is the one relating to dogs that jump up. If their objective is to get more of our attention by doing this, if we then turn our back and ignore them every time they will learn that the behavior does not get them what they want and they will stop. By removing your attention, hopefully, the jumping behavior will decrease. You can then use positive reinforcement to reward when they have all four paws on the floor. We like Negative Punishment (even if the term makes it sound like something bad)!
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.