What is Punishment and Why Should We Avoid Using It with Our Pets?


Behaviors toward a pet, such as shouting, hitting or withholding a toy or affection, in order to reduce or eradicate an undesirable behavior, can all be considered punishment.

How Common Is Punishment?

Think for a few moments about the feedback you provide in your own relationships with your partner, your family and your friends, let alone your pets!

How many of us find ourselves constantly repeating, to no avail, statements like:

  1. Stop throwing your clothes on the floor.
  2. Why do you always leave the toilet seat up?
  3. Be quiet, shush, quiet down.
  4. No, No, No!
  5. Stop that!
  6. Behave

Yet we don’t seem to question how effective we are being in our efforts to change another person’s, or a pet’s behavior, given that our attempts are repeated and seem to fail at the required objective in terms of the changes you hoped to make to their behavior. Continually asking or providing feedback on being quiet or picking up clothing or leaving a toilet seat up can soon be seen as insanity. We all know the infamous quote!  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

As parents and partners, we spend much of our time providing feedback to family and friends that ranges from just futile nagging to comments and actions that progress to being unpleasant, and in some scenarios abusive.

When you find yourself frustrated because you consistently must repeat yourself, then it’s time to stop and reflect on what you are doing. You need to ask yourself, “Is my action modifying the behavior I deem inappropriate or irritating? Or are my actions simply eroding the relationship I share with this other being?”

In behavioral science the word “punishment” is defined as an event that “occurs when stimulus change immediately follows a response and decreases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007).  In other words, we're less likely to do something again as a result of what happened after.

Although punishment is a simple concept, many complex variables determine whether punishment will have the intended effect of reducing or eliminating an unwanted behavior.

For all of us, humans and our pets, feedback from our environment is essential to our survival. That feedback comes in the form of reinforcement (we drink water, and our thirst is satisfied) or punishment (we get too close to a fire, and we are punished with a burn).  As adults we yearn to teach our children and our pets how best to avoid punishment from their environment so that their lives are safer, more enriched, and they are more resilient and empowered.

It is very important to recognize that punishment is not defined by the action but by the outcome. What I mean by this is that you cannot just say, “I punished my child or my pet,” if there has been no change in the behavior. Nor can you determine what is punishing for the being. What may have a punishing effect for one pet, may be neutral and ineffective for another. It may also be reinforcing, thereby strengthening the behavior.

What is critical to understand is that punishment is something we all seek to escape or avoid. Think about that! Would we want to be responsible for the application or attempted application of a stimulus that our beloved friends, families, children or pets are determined to escape or avoid? Why – especially with the knowledge that punishment is ineffective and inefficient?

So, why is punishment ineffective and inefficient?

As with most things in life, the answer to that depends.

I want to highlight here that we feel punishment is both ineffective and inefficient. Think about these two words.

Effective means successful in producing a desired or intended result and efficient means achieving maximum productivity with minimum effort.

There are specific criteria that must be in place for punishment to work, but even with these criteria in place, I ask that you still consider punishment ineffective. Here’s why.

As progressive, science based, humane behavior professionals we seek a desired training or teaching result that is fun, stress free and emotionally empowering for the student and the trainer. You can decide for yourself if you think the criteria below meet that standard.

For punishment to be effective you must meet three critical elements.

  1. The first element is Consistency.
    • The punishment must occur every time an unwanted behavior occurs.
    • If you punish your dog inconsistently for a behavior, your dog will not understand why he is being punished and you will not eliminate the unwanted behavior and may create other problems.
  2. The second element is Timing
    • You must administer the punishment within a second or two of the inappropriate behavior.
    • If you punish your dog even slightly too late, your dog will not know why you are punishing him (or worse, he will think you are punishing him for a behavior completely unrelated to the bad behavior) and the result of your punishment will not change your dog’s behavior – at least not in the way you intend. This can harm your dog and lead to a number of very negative unintended and unpredictable consequences.
  3. The third element necessary for punishment to be effective is Intensity
    • The punishment must be unpleasant enough to stop your dog from repeating the unwanted behavior but not enough to frighten or traumatize your dog.
    • If you get it wrong either way – too intense or not intense enough- you will not be happy with the result.
    • It is impossible for anyone to predict the necessary intensity of a punishment to ensure the desired effect in every situation without doing harm.

In the real world, meeting all three of the necessary punishment criteria (consistency, timing and intensity) is impossible and applying punishment incorrectly can have very negative, damaging, consequences to your dog.

Often dog owners continue to punish their dogs because they may see short-term results. However, punishment eventually results in other unwanted behaviors in your dog such as escape, apathy and even aggression.

Consequently, punishment is ineffective because the necessary criteria for effectiveness are impossible to meet in real-life circumstances. It is inefficient for many reasons, including that you have not taught your dog what to do instead of the unwanted behavior. There is a better way to achieve maximum productivity for your effort.

How Can I Train My Dog Safely & Effectively?

The most effective and safest alternative to using punishment in training is to use methods based on reinforcing behaviors that you want your dog to exhibit.

Training methods using positive reinforcement, where your dog is rewarded for the appropriate behaviors you want, are safer and more effective with no negative consequences if you get it wrong. This does not mean we ignore or forgive inappropriate behavior; it simply means we use behavioral science methodology. To target problematic behaviors for extinction, we remove reinforcement of them while reinforcing desired behaviors that are incompatible with the unwanted ones. For example: rather than telling a child to stop drawing on the walls we would provide them with crayons and a coloring book. A good pet example would be rather than punishing a dog for pulling on a leash we move into training mode and teach them to walk in a particular location aligned with our pace.

Teaching your dog what to do rather than punishing what not to do has huge benefits and no negative side effects.

The many benefits of using positive methods include; 1) more effective in the long run, 2) strengthens the bond you share with your dog, 3) training sessions are more enjoyable for pets and people, 4) you can’t hurt or traumatize your dog if you do not get the training exactly right, 5) any member of your family is capable of using positive reinforcement techniques and 6) positive methods are easily incorporated into your daily routine.

Our family pets desperately seek to gain our approval, love and companionship and they should not live under the constant fear of punishment, especially at the hands of those whose role it is to protect and care for them. If your dog is exhibiting unwanted behavior, consult a dog behavior specialist. He or she will help you identify the root cause of the problem and develop an appropriate program using positive reinforcement to replace undesirable behaviors with desirable ones.

Written for the DogSmith by Niki Tudge 2022. Edited for clarity 2022.