Your Dog: To Punish or Not to Punish

Corrective or punishment based training has become a very controversial subject over the last ten to twenty years. When I began training my first dog, in the mid 1970s, the only training classes available were correction based. That means when teaching the dog a new skill we praised him when he got it right, and punished him when he made a mistake. And overall this method seemed to work. Our dogs learned to come, sit, lie down, stay, and heel -until we took off the leash. We learned quickly that our dogs only listened when we were close enough to be able to enforce our commands (to punish mistakes). If a dog didn’t learn, obviously we were not being forceful or dominant enough, or we didn’t practice enough. Or just maybe, in the long run, these techniques didn’t work.

Often when our dog is doing something wrong, our immediate response is to want to punish the behavior away. Why do we always return to this method? For two reasons: 1) it feels good to immediately have something to do about the problem, and 2) it seems to work, the behavior stops (in the short term, anyway). In effect we are rewarded for punishing our dog.

However, there are several problems with relying on punishment to teach or change a behavior. For punishment to work, it must be: 1) immediate, and 2) forceful enough to make the behavior stop. In reality, most of us have pretty poor timing, so rarely is the punishment immediate. And just how much force is enough to get the job done, but without going overboard?

Rarely does anyone discuss the side effects of using punishment as a training tool. I’ll give you a very personal example of what some of those side effects might be.

For the past month or so my puppy, Karl, has discovered that he can get attention by barking. He barks, and someone (my husband or one of my boys) gets up to let him outside (or inside). He barks at Missy and she growls at him. He barks at other dogs at the park and they play with him. So he started to bark at me when he wanted attention.

My first response, from years of positive dog training experience, was to use extinction, so I ignored him whenever he barked. I tried that for a week or so but it didn’t work very well because everywhere else he was being rewarded for barking.

Then I tried negative reinforcement, taking away something he wanted, namely me. Whenever he barked at me I got up and left the room. Over time that got a better response, but was pretty inconvenient.

Well one night I came home really tired and stressed, and I just wanted to sit, relax, and watch TV. I hadn’t been home most of the day and Karl really wanted my attention, so any time I stopped petting him or playing with him he started persistently barking at me. I was exhausted and fed up and not in the mood to keep getting up and leaving the room. So, in my frustration, I resorted to punishment. I grabbed him and told him to BE QUIET! And the result, he has quit barking at me for attention, so the punishment worked.

So what’s the problem? As a result of that one incident, it has taken a week for Karl to want to play with me again, or to sit by me when I watch TV, and he still sometimes shies away when I reach for him. I wish I had persisted with my positive approach, and not let my frustration get the better of me. Because while the punishment did work to stop the annoying behavior, the price I paid for using it was just too high!

So I hope you all will learn from my mistake, and no matter how frustrated you become, stay positive and persistent and you will get the job done. The results are well worth the effort!

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