Everything you need to know about the use of positive punishment in dog training.
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If you are a new dog owner, or even if you’ve been around dogs for a while, this article is for you. It covers the technical definition of positive punishment, examples of what it is, what we know about the risks of using it and what professional organizations advise.
Let’s get the technical definition out of the way first.
What is positive punishment in dog training?
You’ll have noticed I said positive punishment instead of just punishment. In everyday language, we often say punishment when what we technically mean is positive punishment. We can also have negative punishment, but that will be the topic of another post.
Punishment means something that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour happening again i.e. the behaviour goes down in frequency. And positive means that something is added.
So positive punishment means adding something after the dog did a behaviour that makes the frequency of that behaviour go down.
For example, if the dog jumps up and you knee them in the chest, and next time you see them the dog does not jump up, you have positively punished the dog jumping. You added something (the unpleasant sensation of a knee in the chest) and reduced the frequency of the behaviour.
Please note, I am not advocating this as a way to train a dog, and we’ll get to the reasons why in a moment. And it may also not work (e.g. if the dog perceives it as a game and keeps jumping, in which case it was not punishing).
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Examples of positive punishment
There are lots of examples of positive punishment: yelling at the dog, tapping the dog on the nose with a newspaper, using a citronella collar to stop barking (the collar squirts citronella in the dog’s face when it detects a bark), alpha rolls or ‘dominance downs’ where the dog is rolled on their side or forced into a down position and held there after they did something the owner didn’t like, use of a prong collar that digs into the dog’s neck when they pull on the leash, hitting the dog or tugging on the leash when they do something you don’t like, using a shock collar to stop them from doing something, and so on.
This is not an exhaustive list and you may have seen other types of positive punishment too.
In everyday language, some of these get called “corrections”. For example, tugging on the leash because the dog did not sit when you asked them to is often called a “leash correction.”
But it’s important to understand that it’s still positive punishment. In other words, you have still added something (the tug on the leash that the dog feels on their neck) that has reduced the likelihood of the behaviour occurring.
One of the reasons it’s important to remember this is that dog training is not regulated and sometimes dog trainers are not very clear about the methods they use. Unfortunately people will sometimes say something is not punishment when actually it is. Even some popular dog training books are not clear in their explanations of important dog training concepts (Browne et al 2017). It makes it difficult for ordinary people to understand what their dog trainer is actually going to do to their dog.
But I tried it on myself and it didn’t hurt!
Sometimes people say they put the prong collar on their arm and tugged it and it didn’t hurt. Sometimes people do this with a shock collar too. So then they think it’s okay to use it on their dog.
I think you have to give them credit for trying it, because they have started to investigate whether it is a good thing to do or not.*
The trouble is that typically they have control over the tug on the prong collar or the application of the shock, because they do it themselves (or if they have someone else do it, they know when it’s coming).
It might sound like a minor detail but it makes a big difference. It’s one thing to have control over it and another thing if it happens to you completely out of the blue – and if it keeps happening too.
Lack of control over something can in itself be a source of stress.
The other thing to remember is the way it works. If it works to stop a behaviour, it must be because the animal found it aversive (if they liked it or didn’t notice it, it wouldn’t reduce the frequency of the behaviour).
And finally, the skin on your dog’s neck is actually very thin. The San Francisco SPCA says “Skin on a human’s neck is actually thicker (10-15 cells) than the skin on a dog’s neck (3-5 cells).” They have some useful resources if you want to know more about prong collars.
We tend to think that since dogs have fur they must be more protected from these things than us with just our skin. But a dog’s neck is a very sensitive area. If you think about the anatomy of the neck, it contains essential things like the windpipe. Applying pressure to the windpipe is not good for any dog, but can be especially serious in brachycephalic dogs that already struggle to breathe.
So putting something on your arm is not a good test of what it feels like to your dog. (There is of course the more general philosophical question of what it feels like to be a dog, in which case I suggest you read Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz).
But isn’t my dog trying to be dominant?
Actually, scientists are agreed that dominance is not the way to train a dog. Dominance training has been very common (and you can still come across it in some books or on TV), but it’s an out-of-date approach to dog training.
One of the problems with the dominance approach is that it assumes the dog is always trying to be dominant over you. First of all this is not true, and secondly it sets up a view of the relationship as an adversarial one. And it might persuade people to use positive punishment (such as alpha rolls) because they think that’s what science recommends – but it’s not.
Some of the things people describe as being dominant include walking in front of you when on-leash, going out of a door ahead of you, eating before you, and getting on the bed or settee. People have told me they worry that their dog will be disobedient because they like to let it cuddle on the couch with them.
Let me reassure you that it’s perfectly fine to let your dog on the couch if that’s what you would like to do. It’s equally fine if you prefer not to; just provide the dog with a nice doggie bed and reward them for using it (you can even leave bits of food there when they aren’t looking so they find a nice surprise when they go to bed). That way they will learn to like their bed better than the couch. And you can also teach them ‘off’ if you need to.
Similarly, it’s okay if your dog walks in front of you, goes out of the door ahead of you, or eats before you. Just decide what works for you and stick to it.
On the other hand, if the dog is ahead of you because they are pulling on-leash, it’s not your dog being dominant, it’s just that dogs like to walk faster than us and there’s something interesting over there and they’d like to get there real quick please. You can fit a no-pull harness to make taking them for walks easier. A no-pull harness does not cause stress for your dog (Grainger, Mills and Montrose 2016).
If you want to know more, see my article on why dog training should not be based on dominance.
Are there risks with using positive punishment?
Unfortunately scientific research on dog training methods shows there are potential risks in using positive punishment, which is an aversive method.
In his review of the scientific literature on dog training, Ziv (2017) says,
“Despite the methodological concerns, it appears that aversive training methods have undesirable unintended outcomes and that using them puts dogs’ welfare at risk. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that aversive training methods are more effective than reward-based training methods. At least 3 studies in this review suggest that the opposite might be true in both pets and working dogs. Because this appears to be the case, it is recommended that the dog training community embrace reward-based training and avoid, as much as possible, training methods that include aversion.”
If you want more information on the research on dog training methods, check out my article new literature review recommends reward-based dog training or my dog training research resources page.
Some of the issues that are reported to occur with the use of positive punishment in dog training are an increase in fear, aggression and stress.
One study found an aggressive response from the dog when people use positive punishment (Herron, Reisner, and Shofer 2009). For example, 11% of dogs were aggressive in response to the use of a prong or choke collar; 15% when they yelled no at the dog, and 43% when they hit or kicked the dog.
The more often people use positive punishment, the more likely they are to report their dog is aggressive and/or excitable (Arhant et al 2010).
The use of aversive training techniques is a risk factor for aggression towards strangers and family members (Casey et al 2010).
And the thing that surprises some people the most is that people who report having used positive punishment to train their dog are more likely to report problem behaviours (Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw 2004).
This is also the case when we look specifically at people who use a shock collar vs those who use rewards for training recall (getting your dog to come to you when called). The people who used a shock collar report less successful training than they expected (Blackwell et al 2012).
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Sometimes people say they use a shock collar because they believe it is more effective. In fact in an experimental study that used professional dog trainers, there was no difference in the effectiveness of using a shock collar versus using rewards to teach recall in the presence of livestock (sheep) (Cooper et al 2014). But there were some welfare concerns with the shock collar use.
The authors say,
“it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice (as suggested by collar manufacturers) presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal.”
What do professional organizations say about using positive punishment in dog training?
In its guidelines on choosing a dog trainer, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour says
“Research shows that dogs do not need to be physically punished to learn how to behave, and there are significant risks associated with using punishment (such as inhibiting learning, increasing fear, and/or stimulating aggressive events).
Therefore, trainers who routinely use choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars, and other methods of physical punishment as a primary training method should be avoided.”
What about fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs?
Sometimes people think that positive punishment is the only thing that will work on an aggressive dog. Unfortunately using an aversive technique may risk making the dog more aggressive. The cause of aggression is often fear and anxiety, and using positive punishment does not do anything to address the fear.
One risky scenario is when a dog is punished for growling because the owner does not like to be growled at. But they aren’t doing anything to address the reason why the dog is growling (for example, maybe the dog is afraid and wanted someone to stay away and not pet them, or they growled when their food bowl was taken away).
What can happen is the dog learns not to growl, but the issue that caused them to growl is still there. Punishment doesn’t do anything to help the dog learn to like people petting them or to like their bowl being taken away. It’s possible that next time, instead of growling, they will just bite.
If a dog growls at you, you should stop what you are doing. Ask yourself why they are growling. Then find another solution, even if it’s a long-term one that involves hiring a dog trainer to help. (And if you think an aggressive dog is about to bite you, remember what we tell children – to “be a tree” and keep absolutely still).
If your dog is fearful or anxious, then it’s especially important not to use positive punishment in case it makes the fear or anxiety worse. It could also cause the dog to become afraid of you if they associate you as the source of the punishment. Again, you may need to find a good dog trainer to help you resolve the problem.
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Shouldn’t we use all the tools available?
Some people like to use a mix of positive reinforcement and positive punishment to train their dog. This is typically called balanced dog training.
The trouble is there are a number of problems with balanced dog training. The risks of using punishment don’t disappear just because you sometimes offer treats or play as well. This is seen in some of the studies mentioned above, where many participants used both positive reinforcement and positive punishment.
Just because a range of methods are available, it doesn’t mean you have to use them all.
Luckily, tools like no-pull harnesses and automatic treat dispensers are available these days, so there are a lot more choices than there used to be for people who want alternatives to punishment. And there is a lot more good information in books, on TV and the internet than their used to be, so if you’re looking for information it’s out there (but you still have to be very careful with your sources, as there’s plenty of erroneous information on dog training too).
It’s up to you as a dog owner to use the methods that you think are safe for your dog and will work. If a dog trainer suggests a method you are not happy with, look for another trainer.
|Photo: Sundays Photography/Shutterstock
How am I supposed to train my dog?
If you are used to thinking of training as a way to stop a dog from doing things, then it can take a change of perspective to start thinking about what you would like to teach your dog to do instead.
For example, you don’t want your dog to jump on people you meet out and about in the street. You have several choices for what you would like to teach. Maybe you would like the dog to sit to be petted. Maybe you would like to teach the dog to nose target the person’s hand, so the dog still gets the opportunity to sniff the person but all four paws are staying on the ground. Maybe you don’t really mind so long as those paws stay on the ground. Or maybe you would just like to be able to get the dog to walk on by and not meet every single person in the world.
All of these are possible and the one(s) that you choose are up to you. Your dog is showing very common, friendly behaviour in jumping on people to greet them, but you can train them to greet nicely the way you would like.
Instead of using positive punishment for misbehaviour, try to think of using positive reinforcement to train your dog what to do. This is better for your dog because it avoids the risks associated with positive punishment. And there are some other advantages to using rewards in dog training that are not covered here.
For more information, see my article on positive reinforcement in dog training. You might also like to read my ultimate dog training tip.
And if you need help, you can always hire a dog trainer. Just remember that dog training is not regulated, so take care to choose a good dog trainer.
Summary: What is positive punishment in dog training?
When people talk about punishment in dog training, often they mean what is technically known as positive punishment.
Positive punishment means adding something to make the likelihood of a behaviour go down, such as using leash jerks, alpha rolls, or hitting the dog. Although many people still use positive punishment to train their dog at least some of the time, there are risks associated with its use, including the risks of fear, anxiety, stress and aggression. It’s also possible that the dog will associate the punishment with the owner and so become afraid of them. Reward-based methods are better for animal welfare, and there are even a few studies that suggest they work better.
I’ll end with a quote from Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw (2004).
“Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviours, we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog-owner.”
It’s up to us to decide how to train our dogs, but it makes sense to use methods that are good for canine welfare.
*Incidentally, I’m not suggesting you try it on yourself at home. If you want to know what it’s like to wear a prong collar, Yvette van Veen has already done it for you. Her verdict? “It hurts like hell when a collar presses on delicate tissue.”
If you would like to read more about dog training methods and how to train your dog, you might like these books (affiliate links):
Train Your Dog Like a Pro and Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson.
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.
How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves by Dr. Sophia Yin.
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell.
Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pamela Reid.
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.
Decoding Your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Edited by Debbie Horwitz and John Ciribassi with Steve Dale.
The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (2nd edition) edited by James Serpell.
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Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3), 131-142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Blackwell, E. J., Bolster, C., Richards, G., Loftus, B. A., & Casey, R. A. (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC Veterinary Research, 8(1), 93. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-6148-8-93
Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training. PloS one, 9(9), e102722.
Grainger, J., Wills, A. P., & Montrose, V. T. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 60-64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.002
Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1), 47-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare-Potters Bar then Wheathamstead, 13(1), 63-70.
Ziv, G. (2017). The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs–A Review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004
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