Do You Have Any Business Punishing a Dog?

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallHow would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?

At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I do whatever works. It’s a statement I could even make about myself. I had the opportunity to watch this trainer handle a rambunctious, young, male, Labrador Retriever. She had been unable to provide a rate of reinforcement that was high enough to get the behavior she wanted from the dog. She was also unable to explain to the owners how to do this and instead the dog wore a shock collar and was subjected to repeated collar corrections in order to get him to ‘calm down’. I realized that she wasn’t doing what worked, she was doing what she could do.

I understand how challenging high energy dogs can be, but I was stunned. The foundation reward-based trainers build with a dog is finding rewards that are reinforcing enough to the dog they will repeat behaviors to get them. Sometimes this can take some exploring, but with a lab? A lab!? Labs are the poster children for food and play as reinforcers.

Unless you have the skills to teach behaviors without inflicting pain, yelling, or threatening a dog, with a level of proficiency that demonstrates knowledge of how the various types & schedules of reinforcement get behavior, you have no business, as a professional, resorting to punishment as a solution to a behavior challenge. Even if you can demonstrate that skill and knowledge you should also be able to identify the potential risks and fallout of using punishment, should you decide to use it, so you are prepared to identify them should they occur. Knowing how to punish a dog to stop behaviors is not enough, you should be well versed in all the reasons why you shouldn’t.


38 comments so far

  1. Pamela Webster (@S_Wagging) on

    Amen. We amateurs already know how to make mistakes. We rely on competent trainers to teach us the effective (and humane) way to work with our dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Pam. There is no excuse IMHO for people calling themselves dog trainers or behavior(ists, consultants) to not understand the possible repercussions of punishment before they choose to use it.

  2. Donna in VA on

    Sounded like a case where someone should say “This dog is not right for you” or at least get the owners’ expectations in line with something achievable. Getting the right dog and the right person together is at least half the battle, or at least setting the expectations of how long it will take to correct an undesired behavior (if ever). Having had my dog for 7 years now, I have been able to realize what my limitations and preferences will be for future dogs. But I can see where a novice dog owner could go into the situation having completely wrong expectations and then being frustrated enough to try extreme measures. That is where the voice of experience needs to speak up, and new dog owners need to read every book they can get their hands on to understand that there are multiple approaches and options to use.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The frustrating piece of the puzzle for me is that I don’t think people should need to put so much energy into learning about the best ways to live with their dogs. If the muck wasn’t put out there for everyone to have stepped in and tracked through their lives they might behave like compassionate humans and we wouldn’t have to worry about all this stuff. But it’s out there and at least there are resources for inquiring minds to consult when they do face challenges.

      • Martina Schoppe on

        I want to kiss you for that reply 🙂

        Debbie replying: Now that’s a compliment!

  3. Debbie on

    It’s hard to believe in this day of enlightenment there are still *trainers* out there who can charge for showing people what not to do. Surely the audience called her out on this one? I will be forever indebted to the first positive reinforcement dog trainer I went to. Not only did she help me realize that what I had been taught for many years by prior trainers was idiotic and ineffective, but that you can successfully utilize those techniques when dealing with humans too. For example, a few months ago, my husband washed my favorite cup and left it by the coffee pot for when I got later. I texted him: “I was so happy to have my favorite cup this morning!” Nothing else was ever said about it, and dang, every single day my cup is waiting for me by the coffee pot.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I was the only admitted ‘rewards-based trainer’ in the room. So while it was pointed out to her that an increased rate of reinforcement was probably necessary, it did not end the use of the punishment.

      I’ve been working on my husband too in regard to coffee. On the weekends I get a cup with a fabulous mound of frothed milk on top delivered to me in bed. Hoping to increase the rate of this behavior to include weekdays!

  4. Tammy Blomquist on

    I’m so glad training is turning into a positive activity! I can remember when I was 12 years old my parents had gotten me a German Shepherd for my birthday. When he was about 6 months old we signed up for obedience classes. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. (leather leashes & choke chains were required) We were working on heeling and the “teacher” decided to make an example of my dog. She took him from me and in order to get him to stop pulling on the leash she whipped him with the leash and swung him around in circles while he choked. I left that class in tears and never went back. That was my first exposure to dog training. It was 17 years before I even considered obedience classes again.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’ve heard those horror stories before Tammy. Hopefully there was no permanent damage to your dog physically or emotionally. There are still trainers out there who would still treat a dog this way, coming up with all kinds of excuses for why it was an appropriate choice. But fortunately more and more trainers are learning about animal behavior and developing great skills for helping people teach their dogs.

      • Tammy Blomquist on

        He became aggressive to strangers to the point of having to be locked up if anyone new came into the house. Not long after my parents decided we couldn’t keep him any more.

        I’ve learned a lot over the years and I’m still learning. I wish we had an actual animal behaviorist where I live.

  5. Doggy's Style on

    In my short time as a dog owner I’ve met many so called dog trainers, they should read the basic before passing their BS on. I’ve been rally lucky with Doggy, he’s a really high energy dog, he doesn’t stop but is not destructive, he has never chewed on anything and is really good at paying attention to me. I’ve used the clicker method from day one and it has worked.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting and so glad to hear you are enjoying your time with your dog!

  6. ashlee on

    I’m by no means a dog trainer, but I feel the shock/corrective collars do way more harm than good. I got into it with a friend at work who was using the shock collar ”technique.” Her dog still doesn’t listen and she is dead set against using positive enforcement techniques. She says that that’s what her aunt uses and she’s had success. Poor dogs. I’m having difficulty with adopted dog and sometimes it’s hard to keep my cool, but I’d never use shocks or prongs on someone I love who doesn’t understand what I’m asking them. It’s me not the dog that needs the training!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Ashlee. The biggest problem with the use of aversive methods like shock and prong collars is that people don’t do the foundation work that needs to be done before we even think about applying punishment. You may not be a trainer but you do understand that until a dog knows what we want them to do we shouldn’t be punishing them for not doing it! Maybe you should be a dog trainer.

  7. Diane Mercia on

    I will never understand why anyone thinks that yelling,shocking etc could be a valid method of training any dog as they are so anxious to please anyway.I am not a trainer,just a person that has always had rescue dogs and can’t understand why we always have to resort to being a bully to dogs or humans as a way of controlling then.I agree that you have to be firm when training and establish yourself as the leader,but kindness,treats,patience and affection do not cause dogs to become fearful or aggressive.I would stay clear of anyone who called themselves a trainer and then uses these tactics to train a dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      One of the challenges for trainers and owners is that punishment can be so darn effective, and that’s reinforcing to the person doing the punishing.

  8. fearfuldogs on

    So sorry to hear about the outcome for your GSD. You may not have a certified behaviorist near you, but there are lots of great trainers out there who might be able to help you out.

    • Tammy Blomquist on

      Thanks. I do have a good trainer for most things (she’s not 100% positive but I choose not to use the corrections) but I’ve got one dog that no one seems to have any ideas for. She’s afraid of people.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Have you checked out Many of the dogs I work with are afraid of people.

      • Tammy Blomquist on

        I just recently came across your site and I have it bookmarked. I’ve done some reading and plan to do more. As well as purchase your book. 🙂 We just took in a new foster and I’ve been preparing for an agility trial coming up this weekend. After that I should have some time to dit down and do some reading. I am looking forward to it. 🙂

      • KellyK on

        From my experience (and my dog isn’t as bad off as many fearful dogs are), one on one classes with a trainer who specifically works with fearful dogs is a good thing. It has to be someone who only uses positive methods, because even a mild aversive that’s not going to faze a confident dog might totally destroy a scared dog’s trust in you.

        It also helps to realize that fearful dogs take waaaaaaaay longer to train than other dogs, because they have to learn to be okay in situations and with people before they can do any of the actual obedience stuff.

  9. Erato on

    I don’t think this post needs a long and eloquent comment – it should be obvious to any thinking person to not use punitive methods of “training” for a number of reasons. It only makes me wonder how is it possible that in a supposedly intelligent species that we are still a vast majority of people don’t get it.

    On a side note, high energy dogs are my favorite to work with. Recently I was asked to help with a 9 months old GSD mix, who was supposedly over-active, destructive and openly disobedient (heard that she’d even openly take objects from shelves and destroy them when people were looking). Guess what – I never saw any of those behaviors in her, even with her owners present; she was calm, quiet, eager to please and completely focused on me. No wonder the poor dog resorted to disobedience if the only attention she EVER got was punishment. It’s a sad truth that dogs will rather suffer willingly than be ignored. That is also why cases like this are the easiest to solve once you take a different approach (although that dog did take a while to understand the very concept of praise – at first she didn’t understand why I was nice to her, which was a heartbreaking sight)

    My own dog is exceptionally energetic and very sensitive emotionally so you can imagine what a miserable animal, and what a nightmare to handle she would’ve become if someone tried using punishment on her. Precisely the reason why I chose this puppy. For me, she’s the most responsive, loving and sweet dog I could’ve imagined.

    …I think I should make a meme out of this. “Starts comment with stating it wont be long; Writes a damn novel.” Sorry about that ^^’

    • fearfuldogs on

      I appreciate you reading and commenting, regardless of the length! Once you connect with a dog in a way that taps into their reward system, it’s very exciting. I recently met with a dog who was showing some aggressive behavior toward other dogs. He was fearful of me at first but after we played some learning games he began to give me the most intense, and somewhat unnerving eye contact. He was so into what we were doing it was as though he was trying to figure me out and wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I hated leaving.

      For so many dogs their ability to learn new behaviors is only limited by our ability to teach them.

      • Erato on

        Yes, I think I know this look. One of the most amazing things about dogs is that they are so straightforward, they always and constantly speak their mind, and I think that’s why it’s so easy to feel close to them. Action-reaction, a dialogue starts and you can feel the bond forming between you within minutes. I still miss a lot of dogs I only met for a couple of hours, years ago.

        I’m not a professional trainer, though I wish to learn everything a trainer needs to know so that I will be able to help dogs in shelters (never intend to make money with this), but it seems like it’s always the hardest to solve your own problems. I usually know how to help most dogs I meet, but I can’t figure out how to help my own two dogs get along, and can’t seem to find answers anywhere on the net (consulting a behaviorist in person is out of the question. I live in Poland and there are probably no more than four or five here, all far away and too expensive), and despite all my efforts I can’t seem to figure out what my dog’s motivation is.

        Yes, I still often wonder how much of the dog intelligence we see is limited by our knowledge of how to teach them to think the way we do, how much of it stays hidden or never has a chance to develop, and what would our dogs be like if we learned literally everything there is to know about teaching them…

  10. Verne on

    I have a Red Headed Golden Retriever and a Chihuahua, just like Victoria. The Retriever has seperation anxiety, and the Chihuahua bites her all the time. Both females, both want to be dominant. Really getting hard to handle. I want to calm the fears of the Retriever and I want to make the Chihuahua stop barking and biting the Retriever. They are both so jealous of each other, if I pet the Retriever, the Chihuahua bites and growles. If I pet the Chihuahua, the Retriever growles. What do I do?

    • fearfuldogs on

      You should find a trainer who can help you understand resource guarding. Where do you live? A good trainer can give you ways to work with this kind of behavior. Can your dogs sit and stay when you ask them to? Both should have at least these behaviors under their belts/collars.

  11. Karen on

    Thank you so much for this article. I am sharing far and wide. I have been in rescue for 18 years and the methods that I have seen from trainers as well as fellow rescuers are horrifying. When I try to gently suggest a better way, people get so defensive. They would rather put their animal through painful and threatening techniques than admit they are not doing the right thing. We see so many dogs at the shelter that were screwed up by these types of trainers. They have lost their trust in people…rightfully so. I sure hope the tide is turning, and soon!!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m complimented that you want to share the post! I think the tide is turning. Hopefully people like you involved in rescue can continue to have the energy to keep swimming against it! Thanks for the work you do helping dogs who need it most.

  12. Kirsten on

    And for goodness sakes – if the trainer can’t get the reinforcement accurate — how in the heck do they think they’ll be accurate with punishment?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ah, the thinking part, often not done, or done often enough. Punishment, even ineptly applied, can serve to stop behavior so effectively that for many, it’s enough. Subsequent problems may not be linked to the use of punishment and so goes the cycle. In many cases the animal is written off as incorrigible, hopeless or redzone.

  13. crystalpegasus1 on

    I just wrote a blog on why you shouldn’t use shock collars, lol! But seriously, it’s very, very common in the sport I train in (herding), so common actually that my herding trainer who uses positive reinforcement, has gotten the “pleasure” of adding to her business by rehabilitating dogs who were so horribly punished that they have run away from sheep during trials or killed so much stock that they are black listed from competing. It’s really sad, especially when I, as an amateur, not a professional, know better.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I have spent a bit of time in New Zealand and always enjoyed watching the sheep dogs work, often on huge tracts of land, out of sight of their handlers. I never saw one wearing a shock collar. The only punishment I ever saw used was a stern reprimand when a dog did something they weren’t suppose to. All the dogs I saw seemed overjoyed to be invited into the truck to go out and work.

      My contention is that the challenge for trainers who incorporate the use of shock collars into their practice is not trainers who speak out against them, but the trainers who use them inappropriately. I would say the same thing about any type of punishment.

      • crystalpegasus1 on

        That’s wonderful! My herding trainer is actually going to New Zealand sometime this winter I believe to see how they work there. She has been to Germany as well and seen how the German trainers work with their dogs and said the same thing, that there was not all that much use of force. I have read some of the translated works of professional herding competitors in Germany and they all talk about “singing” to your dog and mostly speak about having patience and waiting to work when your dog is “feeling it” so to speak. I do think it has something to do with the American mentality of instant gratification. Shock collars seem to work great at first, and in herding, where it takes a couple years at least to train a solid dog, I can see the rush to speed the process up. Unfortunately, it seems to have a really negative impact in the long run.

    • fearfuldogs on

      From what I saw they put young dogs out with experienced dogs and saw which picked it up.

  14. Linda Parker on

    Great article! Wish more people would think about what you are saying. Thanks!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Fingers crossed that more are Linda! Thanks for your comment.

  15. ladychaunceybarkington on

    Those who can teach, do. Those who can’t, punish. Reblogged.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for the reblog! (ah the words we use in the 21st century 😉

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