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  • Holly Leake

Is it Okay to Punish Your Dog?

Imagine you have just applied for a new job. You learn in the interview that all training will be provided and that you will receive lots of support. You get hired and eagerly start the job. For the first two weeks, you receive lots of praise and commendation and your boss seems really happy with your work.

Everything is going great and you are starting to grow in confidence. All of a sudden, your work life completely changes. Your boss is no longer happy with your work, even though he loved your work last week. To add to the confusion, your boss has started shouting at you for not knowing how to do certain aspects of the job correctly, even though you were promised to receive training on the job. You do your utmost to please your boss, but your self-esteem is shot to pieces and you are having trouble concentrating. After only 4 weeks and barely any training, your boss fires you for incompetence.

Is this fair? You are likely thinking no because you were promised training and support and you did not receive this. Plus, the boss was initially happy with your work so his requirements are very inconsistent and confusing. Wouldn’t it be more just to evaluate the quality of your work once you have received all the necessary training needed to perform the job?

Pretty much every dog on earth has been in this situation. Puppies are born with no knowledge of what is expected of them and no training on how to be a good dog. They are completely dependent on their guardians to teach them how to behave. In many cases, puppies are initially rewarded for undesirable behaviour while they are cute and small. Then all of a sudden they are being shouted out for jumping on guests and pulling on their lead. They are left confused because this behaviour was acceptable before. To make matters worse, they are now being physically punished and they don’t understand why. Some puppies are even abandoned or left in shelters because they failed to meet the expectations of their human. For many dogs, the inside of the shelter is the last place they will ever see.

As dog owners, we take on the responsibility to train our dog. That’s the deal. Is it fair to expect them to know how to behave, if we have never taught them? (Saying “no” every time your dog does something negative, is not training them how to behave) Is it then fair to punish them for something we either reinforced or didn’t teach them? In most cases, undesirable behaviour is reinforced by their guardians unbeknownst to them. In other cases, the undesirable behaviour is due to the dog’s needs not being acknowledged or fully met, due to the guardian not understanding the emotions driving the behaviour. Finally, many dogs do not receive consistent training using positive training, that is practiced on a regular basis and in a variety of environments/ situations. Despite these being common causes of so called “bad behaviour”, many will still argue that punishment is the quickest and most effective way to train their dog, but is it?

On my last blog post on guilt, we established that dogs do not have the ability to feel this complex or secondary emotion. This subject is relevant to whether or not we should punish dogs, because if we believe dogs are capable of feeling this emotion, we will attribute responsibility to dogs for performing a behaviour that they supposedly know is wrong. John Bradshaw (2011) states in his book In Defence of Dogs (which I highly recommend you read), that in order to feel guilty about a negative behaviour, the dog would have to have some mental representation of what it is and isn’t allowed to do. Then the dog would have to compare this with what he has actually done over the past few hours while his guardian was away.

This would be difficult because the dog would have to remember not only the events in question but also their social context. Biologists are sure that dogs are not mentally capable of understanding the impact of social context on their own actions. In other words, dogs are not capable of understanding how their actions affect others because they don’t have the mental capacity to learn morals or reflect on how their behaviour measures up. In children, it is not till the age of 6 that their conscience develops and this is continually refined until they reach adulthood.

From my previous blog post on Guilt, we know that by 6 months of age, dogs have developed all the emotions they are ever going to have, however, these emotions are limited to those experienced in a 2 and half year-old child. Therefore, dogs do not have emotional complexity to feel bad about their behaviour. Even if they are punished for the same thing over and over, the punishment will not have the desired effect. Why?

Although it’s argued that punishment can stop behaviour when given at the right time, it also has a multitude of unpredictable side effects. For example, many dog guardians have come home from work to find everything in reach, destroyed. The dog guardian is so upset that they hit the dog, shout at them and/or lock them in a room alone. They feel their dog has gotten what they deserved and has learned his lesson. The next day the same situation happens all over again because the reason for the behaviour has been totally ignored and the behaviour has just been punished. Surely if the dog recognises his wrongdoing and understands the punishment is due to his destructive behaviour he will stop?

That’s the problem. The dog doesn’t understand that his behaviour is wrong. In fact, it’s likely a symptom of anxiety and the chewing is a mechanism by which he can trigger dopamine release to help relieve his stress. So punishment is not going to effectively stop the destructive behaviour, especially since it’s a symptom of a larger issue. The punishment also likely occurs hours after the dog was destructive, in fact studies show destructive behaviour often occurs within the first 30 minutes of the guardian leaving the home. So the dog is completely confused because too much time has passed to draw an association between his behaviour and the consequence. In fact, he just associates his human coming home with a horrible punishment and so the destructive behaviour gets worse because he is nervously anticipating his human’s return. Vicious circle eh?

It is far better to determine why the dog is behaving this way, rather than just punishing them. Even if you believe there is improvement in a behaviour after using punishment, is that enough to justify cruel methods?

“Don’t use an improvement in behaviour as a justification for aversive or abusive treatment”. Ben Hart

Shock collars, prong collars and other forms of punishment are still used in many countries to train dogs. Sadly, the dog training world is currently unregulated, meaning anyone can call themselves a Trainer or Behaviourist, with no legal repercussions. This has resulted in many self-pronounced trainers still utilising punitive and aversive methods that have proven to cause fear, phobias and aggression.

A survey study in 2009 actually proved this, as researchers established that owners that were most aggressive with their dog received an increase in aggressive retaliation, in response. The survey recorded that when dogs were kicked or hit, 43% responded aggressively. When objects (resources) were physically removed from dogs 38% of dogs responded aggressively and 26% responded aggressively to being shaken or grabbed by the scruff. So these statistics in this survey clearly show that using forceful methods to train a dog, only provokes aggressive behaviour and yet it is often used to address aggressive behaviour in the first place.

It is argued that some dogs are so aggressive, that these are the only forms of training that will save the dog from euthanasia. Consider that for a moment. The only way to help an aggressive dog, a behaviour likely caused by fear or/and trauma, is to cause the dog more fear by using aggression and pain in return. Is that logical?

Think back to the illustration. Could you be comfortable at work if your boss shouted and screamed at you continually? What if he threw office equipment at you, would you be able to learn? Would a screaming boss magically teach you how to create spreadsheets without any previous training? Seriously, have you ever tried to do that without help? Its horrendous! You can’t learn when you are stressed and dogs can’t either. Also consider that the dog that is being trained, due to a behaviour that is likely the result of past trauma.

Can you imagine already suffering with anxiety and then having all that abuse from your boss in your new job? Your ability to cope would already be hindered and your mental health would be much worse after being treated in such a way. It is not surprising that dogs suffering with fear and anxiety feel much more fearful after being trained with aversives and abuse. In most dogs, extreme anxiety from punitive training results in them emotionally shutting down. This is called learned helplessness and is often seen in dog training tv shows. You often see a very distressed dog lunging and snarling, so the trainer consistently shocks them or pulls on the prong collar and voila, the aggression is cured. Magic right? Wrong. The dog can no longer cope and just shuts down but to the untrained eyes of the audience, the dog appears calm. Why does this happen?

Well punitive training never teaches a dog what to do, it just punishes them for doing the wrong thing. (This would be like us being regularly suspended from work and our boss expecting us to magically learn how to do the job without any training.) This causes the behaviour to be gradually suppressed to avoid the punishment but to the untrained eye the dog looks calm because they are no longer lunging and growling, which seems like a massive improvement.

“A person who has been punished is not less inclined to behave a given way; at best he learns how to avoid punishment”. B.F Skinner

‘An absence of a particular behaviour does not necessarily mean an absence of a particular emotion. Dogs that don’t growl can still feel threatened. Dogs that don’t bark and lunge can still feel worried.’ The dog will just shut down and relinquish aggressive displays to avoid the pain. Avoiding punishment does not equal a successfully trained a dog. Although many would argue that the result is the same since the undesirable behaviour has stopped but what are the risks of suppression? Dr Ian Dunbar states that “Punishing a growl is like removing the ticker from a time bomb”. The bomb will still go off, but there will be no warning. Hence, punitive methods create a very unpredictable dog. What you can guarantee, is that eventually there will be a breaking point and this usually results in a serious bite.

Finally, punishment destroys self-esteem and it ruins the relationship between the dog and their guardian. Maybe like me, you have been in a terrible position at work. I can say with confidence that I was a nervous wreck and that I would make more mistakes because I was trying so hard to please. I didn’t respect my boss more, in fact I would go as far to say I hated her. Her screaming abuse made me lose all respect for her. I am sure I am not alone in saying that if I ever had a boss like this again, Id’ likely quit on the spot. The difference is we have the choice to leave. We don’t have to put up with this treatment but dogs never have this choice and when they reach breaking point their only option is to fight, which usually costs them their life.

So, punishment is never ok. It is our responsibility to train our dogs to be successful in our world and if this is not the case, it is not due to the limitations of the dog, it is a reflection of our failures to fully understand their behaviour and meet their needs. If you love your dog and you want to help him overcome behavioural issues, punishment is never going to be the way forward.

Ultimately, if you really want your dog to look to you for direction, then it is your responsibility to make yourself someone your dog can trust.

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