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Punishment & Discipline in Dogs


In this paper, the considerably debated arguments surrounding that of positive and negative reinforcement versus punishment will be discussed. The research will give emphasis to the two methods being used in a natural dog world and as a training method. The topic question within this paper is simply, is the use of punitive methods in dog training as barbaric as currently described? Or is it the misunderstanding and misuse of such methods that make it so barbaric in the first place? Based on these questions and with in-depth research, a conclusion based on my own opinion will be drawn. There are many varying factors such as environment, emotion, hormones and smells to name but a few, when deciding on the best course of action to modifying a dog’s behaviour, but the most important factor to always remember and comply with is the health and welfare of the dog in question.

The use of punishment according to dogs.

In today’s modern world, the use of punishment has no place when training dogs but see’s the use of positive and negative reinforcement and negative punishment taking poll position as the go too technique. It is important to first take a look at dogs in their natural form, how they discipline and be disciplined by one another, how they correct unwanted behaviour from a fellow dog, how mothers wean their young and overall, how a dog uses punishment. We know now through research and studies how dogs learn and develop new behaviours when they’re happy and engaged but how do we find and make room in between the bad and unwanted behaviours in order to engage our dog to begin with? Is this where punishment has its place? For example, two dogs are having a good old play, one dog gets slightly over excited and bashes or bites their playful counterpart a little too hard. The no longer playful counterpart may give a stiff stare, maybe even a growl in order to communicate his displeasure at the behaviour of the other dog. This here is an example of canine punishment, the result may see the other dog position into a play bow, communicating his apology and acknowledgement that this is all still a game and the two will continue their play time. The effect of this punishing behaviour saw the over excited dog calm down, relax the situation and avoid any escalation. It was not to insight fear, stress or even anger.

So that is an example of punishment as defined by canine behaviour, albeit a rather mild, simplified one, in their natural form. For dogs to understand and use punishment effectively, it first must be taught to them. It is between weeks four and six in that the mother begins to wean her pups and with it teach discipline and punishment to her pups. John Fisher explains in his book ‘Think Dog’, how the mother will discipline her pups with a piercing stare, warning growls and snarling at them to express her displeasure with their behaviour. Social interactions between mothers and puppies of German Shepherds aged three to eight weeks were studied by Erik Wilsson at ‘The Swedish Dog Training Centre’. Initially, mum’s role is one of care giver and nurse, responding to the pups needs such as requiring warmth and food to name but a few. The weaning process see’s the start of a conflict between mum and pups, mum begins to move away from needy pups looking to her to suckle and feed from her, the more persistent pups will be on the receiving end of mums warning growls, intense stares and even, inhibited bites. The level of intensity in which the mothers punish their pups has a dramatic effect on the pup’s overall development and capabilities later in life. For example, coping with social interactions with both dogs and humans and how trainable the pup will be later in life. The balance and intensity of mum’s punishment has a substantial effect on the pup’s emotional capabilities, Wilsson discovered that the mums who continued to unnecessarily punish her pups even after they have withdrawn and submitted produce dogs that are withdrawn and have higher potential to show fear aggression. In the next stage of their socialisation period the pups begin to play with one another, this is not only important for their physical development but for mental and emotional development too. It is playing with their litter mates where they learn how hard and rough to play, how far they can take it without hurting one another and the consequences they face when they do go to far, such as a growl or retaliation snap from their displeased litter mate. With this knowledge, it is then understandable to see how dogs punish human behaviour. We often hear of dogs nipping or biting their owners, more often children, somewhat out of the blue, but is it? The simple answer here is no, dogs inform us through body language of their emotional state, something some owners are completely unaware of, and others misinterpret. One way to understand how dog bites in the home occur would be to imagine yourself being tired, you are resting in your favourite spot on the sofa and someone standing over you tells you to move. You don’t want to, but they persist they may then begin to shove you to get you to move, you may shout at them, shove their arm away in protest. Now imagine that is your dog, they’re on the sofa, you’re standing over them telling them to get off, they look away, they sigh, you push their bum, they growl, you push again, and they snap. This is a fine example of a dog punishing a behaviour that they are displeased, made uncomfortable and even threatened by, granted a completely dangerous and unacceptable response but so to was your behaviour to them.

The use of punishment in training dogs.

Punishment from a training perspective takes on, from my point of view, a very different form, an anthropomorphised form. As J. Rogerson explains in his book, ‘The Dog Vinci Code’ the dictionary definition of punishment is a penalty for a crime thus occurring after a crime has been committed. This is where the trouble begins, a dog is not able to alter his behaviour retrospectively. Let’s go back to the game of play that got a little out of control, the displeased dog instantly corrected the behaviour of his over excited friend, calming the situation and allowing for a correction to be made. Now let us consider a human - dog interaction where the dog has fouled in the home and their displeased owner comes home to find the mess. The owner proceeds to punish the dog by rubbing his nose in his mess, a totally normal action to do not so long ago however, an action now understood to be abusive. In this scenario, we have a dog who is unable to understand why he is being punished by his favourite human, the look of guilt that people express they witness their dogs give them is actually one of submission, the side whale eye and licking of the lips for example. This form of anthropomorphised punishment has quite the opposite effect to the calming canine version where it in fact elicits a stressful and fearful reaction. Our guilty dog is telling us they’re scared of us. In her book ‘100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs’, A. Semyonova explains that when people try to punish a behaviour the very first time, they are generally too late. Ill timed punishment can simply be puzzling to a dog says Stephen Budiansky in his book ‘The Truth About Dogs’ he continues, repeated ill timed punishment can lead to a dog to try to draw influence from whatever information it can. In this case, as Budiansky explains the thing to be avoided is not the particular behaviour we have in mind rather the person delivering the punishment. Lots of continued punishment can create an ADHD dog or even on the flip side of that, a passive and depressed dog says Semyonova.

In order to understand the controversy surrounding the use of punishment as a training technique it is important to look at exactly what methods are used and how. On ‘Psychology Today’ Stanley Coren explains in an article the common punitive techniques include that of sharp leash corrections, hitting or kicking the dog, the use of electric shoch collars and applying physical pressure which results in the dog being pushed into a lying down position, all of which are administered to shock the dog and subsequently become fearful of whatever it was they where doing. Coren explains that such punitive methods are grown out of a presumption that canine misbehaviour or aggression is due to a lack of assertive, domineering figures in its life even through research has shown this information to be wrong. Not only that but for punishment to be effective, it first relies on the dog practicing an act that we are trying to eradicate leaving plenty of room for naturally occurring rewards for the dog and ill-timed corrections from the owner or trainer. Punishment should be delivered immediately after the problem behaviour says Buch and Bailey in their book ‘How Dog’s Learn’ they continue, that any time punishment is used it should allow the dog to learn new replacement skills. With that being said, the individuality of your dog plays a huge role in how they learn and how they perceive the different methods being employed for them to learn from. Punishment has many levels starting from very mild to highly aversive, for example, shouting at the dog to using an electric shock collar. Some dogs are capable of withstanding more pain than others, for example smacking a Staffordshire Bull Terrier on its behind won’t have nearly the impact as it would if you did the same to a breed such as a chihuahua. J. Rogerson explains that trying to train a dog using punishment can be rather problematic, this is because sometimes what the owner perceives to be punishment, the dog sees as a reward, which is exactly the case with my dog, if I smack her bottom, she thinks a game is afoot, for her the smack on the bottom is a reward. Rogerson explains that if we were to place a dog in a situation where punishment is inescapable, some dogs will learn to modify their behaviour in order to switch off the punisher whereas others will learn that attempts to do this are ineffective and will learn to accept it. This form of learned helplessness can easily occur when an overly aggressive handler uses inappropriate punishment, particularly says Rogerson, when the dog’s control over its ability to avoid the punishment is removed or not understood. According to Stephen Budiansky, the success rate of interactive punishment is dismally low. he explains how even when punishment is well times and judiciously applied, it runs up against the basic law of entropy: there are an infinite number of ways to do something wrong, but only one way to do it right, therefore a much more efficient method of teaching would be to reward the correct behaviour rather punish misbehaviours.

The use of reinforcement in training dogs.

Reinforcement is the process used to strengthen a behaviour, quite the opposite to punishment which is used to weaken behaviour. In their book ‘How Dogs Learn’ Burch and Bailey tell us how when we train a dog that associates us with positive reinforcement, the dog is usually happy and eager to come to you. Grisha Stewart writes on her website in an article under the title of ‘What are Quadrants? Applying Learning Theory to Dog Training’ that the reason trainers prefer to use positive reinforcement and negative punishment in training dogs is that not only is it good fun for both the human and the dog, but that it works and backs up her statement with the evidence of many dogs being successfully trained in obedience, agility and tracking as well as many pet dogs benefiting from no force methods. Which leads onto negative reinforcement and what it actually is. John Rogerson writes in his book ‘The Dog Vinci Code’ that negative reinforcement gives the dog the ability to switch off the disagreeable experience at the time it is happening by adopting a desired behaviour. However, in the force free world, that statement would require an aversive stimulus to occur in order for the dog to switch it off. In the force free world, the use of negative reinforcement also see’s the removal of a rewarding stimulus in order to increase the dogs desired behaviour. Negative punishment has much of the same concept by way of removing a rewarding stimulus, whereas the result from such technique is to decrease an undesirable behaviour. According to Eileen Anderson in an article written on ‘The Whole Dog Journal’ website, both punishment processes (positive and negative) are aversive, and both carry risk of side effects. A Semyonova explains how taking things away from your dog is breaking the canine rules of politeness and showing your dog you aren’t to be trusted. This can cause the dog to become defensive about possessions when a human is nearby. With this in mind, it is easy to see why trainers, handlers and owners are siding with the positive only approach. As Cathy Madson at ‘’ explains, dogs learn faster and are more eager to train if they are told what to do and are rewarded for correct responses thus allowing them to make the correct decisions again and again. It is vitally important to have a high level of communication and trust with our dogs in order for training and ongoing desirable behaviour to be successful. However, whilst positive does not mean permissive, there are in fact many people who solely subscribe to positive methods which in itself can be rather dangerous. When is ignoring the bad and only rewarding the good safe to do so? If a dog is likely to attack another dog, are we actually using positive reinforcement or are we in fact trying to bribe a dog into moving away and behaving? Regardless of how well trained (in terms of positive only training, with no negative experiences) and obedient a dog may be, there can be several factors that can play a part of the dog’s misbehaviour which we cannot see such as physiological and psychological interferences. A well-trained dog does not always add up to a happy, satisfied dog and at some point, somewhere along the line, you and your dog might be faced with a distraction that not even the freshest of cooked juicy chicken can contend with. It is important dogs are taught some level of self-control, this is where negative reinforcement and punishment comes in. Removal of the reward and even verbal reprimands or time outs teach our dog’s discipline and self-control.


Ignoring the bad and rewarding the good certainly does have its place. For example, turning away and ignoring our dogs when they try to jump up at us for attention will likely see the behaviour decrease because the reward (our attention) has not been successful. We can also safely ignore our dog’s attention seeking barks, A. Semyonova explains in her book ‘100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs’ how dogs will show signs of bafflement or frustration, and often the behaviour will intensify at first, but in the end the behaviour will die out, for us it takes patience and consistency. Extinction, an operant conditioning procedure, occurs when a behaviour that has been previously is no longer reinforced, say Burch and Bailey, the result of which is that the behaviour no longer occurs. As described above, there are many useful and safe times in which extinction can be used effectively however, extinction can be not only ineffective but dangerous. This leads me back to the question of when is ignoring the bad and only rewarding the good safe to do so? Burch and Bailey write in the book ‘How Dogs Learn’ how some trainers believe that for certain dogs with severe behaviour problems, not using punishment would mean withholding a potentially successful treatment. They continue asking whether you would use aversive punishers to stop a behaviour that could potentially result in injury to a person or animal, and they exclaim that the punishment controversy is not as simple as all or nothing.


We have discovered that punishment and discipline starts very early in a pup’s life and the level of intensity in which the pup receives this information greatly affects how they behave and how well balanced they are when they grow up in environmental and social situations. We have also discovered how the use of punitive methods in dog training can have severe detrimental side effects to the dog such as becoming withdrawn and depressed to more severe reactions such as becoming aggressive towards people and/or animals. In the introduction to this paper, I asked two questions which where; is the use of punitive methods in dog training as barbaric as currently described? Or is it the misunderstanding and misuse of such methods that make it so barbaric in the first place? Having gathered information, I will now answer both questions solely based on my own opinion.

In short, yes. The use of prongs and shock collars to name but a few are frankly unnecessarily harmful and quite disturbing. It is this level of fear inducing pain that creates such a controversy and is utterly counter productive when we compare it to the use of punishment and discipline as described by dogs themselves. Through our anthropomorphic twisted way, we have taken a rather extreme and unnecessary view to training dogs. With that being said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the use of punishment, particularly positive punishment as a whole is barbaric and has no place. Reinforcement and punishment are the result or consequence of an action and are also naturally occurring. A dog is capable of understanding when their behaviour and actions have led to a negative outcome thus resulting in them being a lot less likely to do that thing again. The approach to aversive punishment training, according to Burch and Bailey, should be made delicately and must consider the level of the dog’s problem behaviour, the dogs well being and safety of other people and animals. Mary Burch explains that aversive punishers should only be used when everything else has been considered tried and failed. Owners, handlers, trainers and behaviourists should always consider, if we are not capable of modifying behaviour through reward, the flip side of this must be consequence. If there are no consequences for the dog’s actions, then there are no reasons for the dog not to do what it wants to do. In order to safely and productively establish the correct training methods for a dog presenting problem behaviour looks like this.

1. Functional Analysis and Behavioural Diagnostics of problem behaviour has been conducted.

2. Clean bill of health established, and all medical, nutritional and dietary factors eliminated.

3. Positive reinforcement techniques applied.

4. Environmental solutions applied.

5. Owner or Trainer behaviour, mood, techniques, timing etc is good.

6. Punishment implemented as last resort.

Written by, Amy Davies.


The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs – A. Semyonova

How Dogs Learn – Burch and Bailey

Think Dog – J. Fisher

The Dog Vinci Code – J. Rogerson

Fearful Dog Rehabilitation – S. Gutteridge

Lessons From Your Reactive Dog – S. Gutteridge

The Truth About Dogs – S. Budiansky

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A very interesting and informative

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