What Is Punishment?

When we are talking about punishment with regard to our dogs, punishment is anything that is intended to reduce an undesirable behavior.  Shouting, hitting or withholding a toy or affection can all be considered punishment.

It is very important to recognize that something we may consider punishment may not actually be punishment to your dog.  Likewise, something you may not consider punishment may very well be punishment to your dog.  Punishment then is in the eye of the one being punished.  Remember, punishment is something that your dog will seek to avoid or escape.

Although punishment is a simple concept, many complex variables determine if punishment will have the intended effect of reducing or eliminating an unwanted behavior.  For all animals, 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).  In the modern world, most punishment comes from other people such as parents, police, bosses, the government, etc.  In general, most of us live in healthy and happy environments where we receive more reinforcing feedback than punishing feedback.  Imagine what life would be like if you lived in an environment where your communication with others was primarily through punishment.

Is Punishment an Effective Way to Train My Dog?

So how useful is punishment as a primary means for teaching your dog the behaviors you want it to exhibit?  As with most things in life, the answer to that depends.  For punishment to be effective as a means to teach your dog, you must meet three critical elements.  First, 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 it is being punished and you will not eliminate the unwanted behavior.  Second, 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 it (or worse, it will think you are punishing it for a behavior completely unrelated to the bad behavior) and the result of your punishment will not change your dog’s behavior.  This can harm your dog and lead to a number of very negative unintended and unpredictable consequences.  The last element necessary for punishment to be effective is that the punishment must be unpleasant enough to stop your dog from repeating the unwanted behavior but not be so unpleasant as to frighten or traumatize your dog.  If you get it wrong either way, you will not be happy with the result.  Often dog owners continue to punish their dogs because they may see some short-term results.  However, the punishment may eventually result in other unwanted behaviors in your dog such as escape, apathy and even aggression. 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 virtually impossible and applying punishment incorrectly can have a very negative impact on your dog.  Since punishment techniques often fail to solve behavior problems, they should not be used as the first training of choice.

So How Should I Train My Dog?

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 is safer and more effective with no negative consequences if you get it wrong.

Teaching your dog what you want it to do rather than punishing it for what you do not want has huge benefits and no negative side effects.  The many benefits of using positive methods include, strengthening the bond you share, training sessions are more enjoyable, you can’t hurt or traumatize your dog if do not get the training exactly right, any member of your family is capable of using reinforcement techniques and 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 protect and care for them.  If your dog is exhibiting inappropriate 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 behaviors.


© Niki Tudge is the founder and owner of DogSmith Franchise Services, a Dog Training and Pet Care company based on positive learning theory with a commitment to socially responsible business practices.  Niki’s rare combination of skills, coupled with her passion to improve the pet-human relationship, leaves her uniquely qualified to help others improve their relationship with their pets or develop their own pet business.  Niki is widely published on topics of dog training and animal behavior.  She also holds business degrees from Oxford University and is a Certified Dog Trainer and Dog Behavior Counselor