What do dogs find punishing?

Posted Saturday, 11 August 2018

This is not such an easy question as you might think!

There has long been a debate about what methods are best to use when training our dogs. There have been many lively discussions between different types of trainers over the years. Whether you are a fan of Victoria Stillwell or Cesar Millan we have opinions on what we feel works best.

I will be honest. My interest in dog training really started when we got Amy, our last Dalmatian. None of our previous dogs was ever trained, nor did they appear to need it. They jogged along with us quite happily. Amy was different. She challenged every rule in our house (actually she didn’t know what the rules were but we still expected her to follow them). Being inexperienced, and after guidance from a local dog trainer, I started to rattle pebbles in cans, squirt water at her, and, I am ashamed to say, I smacked her. I am being totally honest here with you so that you know where I am coming from. We were instructed to use check chains in training classes and used a leash yanking technique to stop dogs getting treats on the floor rather than educating them to leave them. I only went to three classes but the damage had already been done. Our dog became frightened of men after being yanked around by the male trainer and she would pee as soon as he took her from me. I became frightened of female dog trainers after being shouted at by his wife (joke, but not far off and I wasn’t as scared as Amy was because I didn’t usually pee myself).

So, after this training, and based on a natural primate response, when Amy growled at me when she had possession of something I didn’t want her to have, I smacked her, or forcibly took it from her. Luckily for me, I noticed that her aggression was getting WORSE, not better, so I stopped. The rest of the story is history. Personal story coming up; I had had a miscarriage after many years of trying for a baby and I was on light duties at work. So I spent my days getting to know the newly invented internet. On one such journey I discovered that you could get training on how to train dogs and that there were more positive ways of training than I was so far using. I journeyed down the route of academic learning so that I could understand how to “fix” my dog. I am glad we had Amy before we had our son as I learned some good parenting as a result of Amy. There is a reason why it is against the law to physically punish children. It doesn’t work, it creates resentment in the child, it makes them angry, and the aggression can escalate as they learn that hitting is acceptable. Clearly it is acceptable as their parents do it. The same applies for dogs.

Learning Theory

So, in psychology there are four quadrants of “operant conditioning” (how we learn) They are:

Positive Punishment.

This means that you make something unpleasant happen in order to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated. E.G. when a child is naughty, they are smacked. It hurts so they avoid doing this behaviour again to avoid the pain (and humiliation) of a smack.

Negative punishment.

This means that a behaviour is punished (becomes less frequent) by the removal of something nice. E.g. Your child is being naughty in the supermarket and you say “If you continue to run around the store you will not have any pick n mix when we leave”. When you follow through on this, your child's behaviour is punished because they did not get the expected pick n mix and this is as a result of the failure of the child to correct their behaviour. The frequency of the running around behaviour would reduce.

Positive reinforcement.

Something nice happens in order to encourage a behaviour to be repeated. An example of this is when you tell your child if they help you with the shopping and don’t run around the store shouting, they will have some pick and mix when you leave the store. When they have done this, you follow through by actually buying them some pick n mix. This increases the frequency of the desired behaviour. 

Negative reinforcement.

This is where a behaviour is reinforced (becomes more likely) because something unpleasant stops when the desired behaviour is given. This one is much more difficult and subtle to explain. This could be nagging stops when the child does the homework. The child has to stay in his room until his homework is done. Negative reinforcement reinforces (makes the behaviour more likely) behaviour through the emotion of relief. Negative reinforcement occurs when positive punishment stops, because negative reinforcement can only be applied if the dog is already experiencing something they want to avoid.

So, what do dogs find punishing?

As an enlightened dog trainer now, I use only positive reinforcement and, occasionally, negative punishment. All good trainers and parents use negative punishment sparingly and it is very effective at preventing undesirable behaviours. Positive reinforcement is even more effective as, if you are a smart trainer/parent, you will find out WHAT THE DOG/CHILD FINDS MOST REWARDING and use that to reward the behaviours you want to see more of. By doing this, they are less likely to do the behaviours we don’t want, especially if we don’t reward the ones we don't want (which is negative punishment).

Now let’s look at some examples of what dogs find punishing and discuss what kind of punishment is going on. But before we do this we should consider one important thing. What one dog finds punishing another may not. What one dog finds rewarding another one might not. This is one of the biggest challenges we face as trainers.

I once asked a trainer colleague if a certain head collar was aversive to dogs and she answered “It depends on the dog”. ZZZZZING. A lightning bolt hit me and suddenly I realised how big a question I had just asked.
Some dogs find harnesses punishing as they don’t like to wear them. Other dogs love harnesses. Some dogs hate head collars and others accept them readily. So much depends on the dog. However, as a general rule you can be sure the following are considered positive punishment for all dogs:

• Shock collars (also known as static collars, tonal collars, vibrating collars, pulse collars, e collars) and prong/pinch collars. These cause a startle response and pain. ALL dogs find these punishing. This is POSTIVE PUNISHMENT as it inflicts pain and fear and is designed to stop a behaviour being repeated as the dog wishes to avoid this pain. E.G. the dog pulls forward on a lead and ZAP, gets shocked. He does not initially know why the shock happens so can feel powerless to be able to control this nasty thing that happens which creates a lot of stress. Studies have shown increased stress levels (cortisol) in dogs trained using such devices.The dog quickly learns not to pull forward as it is afraid of the pain (an adaptive survival response). Yes, it works, but at what cost? Dogs are more likely to show aggression when trained using these devices. This is because when the dog gets the shock/pinch, it is registering other things in the environment at the same time and it stimulates their defence system. E.g. the dog sees a child or another dog in the vicinity and then ZAP! The only thing the dog saw when he was zapped was the child/dog, therefore, the child or dog caused this pain to happen. The dog becomes fearful of children/dogs and later uses aggression on them to make sure they don’t get near him. Can you recall a time you hit your thumb with a hammer and the response you gave? I can, and it was an angry response with lots of swearing! I even get this response when I press the button to call a lift and get a static shock. In fact, I avoid lifts for this reason, even though it means I might have to drag myself up 15 flights of steps. You see what I mean?

• Any device that restricts movement in the dog. E.G tightly held leads on collars, thin collars which cut into the throat, choke chains, slip type leads that are held up high under the jawline as this restricts the ability to breathe and swallow. Dogs have to release the tension so that they can breathe, resulting in negative reinforcement (relief now the nasty thing has stopped because the dog changed his behaviour). Breathing is fundamentally important to life. The dog has to comply in order to live. Imagine that you are walking along and your partner holds your throat in both hands very hard so that you struggle to breathe. What thoughts are now going through your mind? If we humans did this to each other it is assault.

• Other common and very old fashioned techniques include, ear pinching, scruffing, alpha rolls, forced downs and smacking. These are all positive punishers (pain or fear inflicted with the intention to stop behaviour).

In my experience, the most reliable forms of training use positive reinforcement (increase the frequency of a behaviour because something nice happens and they want the nice thing to happen again) and occasionally negative punishment (the reward they wanted from performing the behaviour doesn’t happen, thereby the behaviour reduces). Positive reinforcement doesn’t just mean treats. It can be access to scent, marking, toileting (possibly one of the only acceptable forms of negative reinforcement too, e.g. relief - as long as the dog was not prevented from eliminating to cause distress), access to greet, being allowed off lead, play, toys, verbal praise, touch as well as treats. The list of rewards is endless if you use your imagination and know the dog well. We should use all of these things in our training toolkit as some of them will have greater value at different times and in different contexts.

As dog owners and trainers we have to use our empathy, understanding and a highly skilled knowledge of canine body language to identify whether or not a dog perceives a situation as pleasant or unpleasant. Some dogs LOVE to be stroked, others hate it. So for one dog, a stroke on the chest would be the equivalent of caviar! But for another it would be the equivalent of a static shock. Many dogs don’t like their heads being stroked or patted.

However, punishment isn't always obvious and even well meaning positive trainers can inadvertently punish dogs. I have seen treats used aversively to suppress behaviour (make a dog stay in a context it didn’t want to be in by feeding constantly) so even treats can be used aversively. I have seen dogs have treats prodded and pushed into their mouths when they didn’t wish to take them. If the dog is not taking a treat this is likely because the fight/flight system has kicked in and their appetite has become suppressed, or they are just plain not hungry. However, conversely, a very stressed dog can eat for England (think about your eating habits when you are stressed).

So, I hope that I have provoked thoughts about rewards and punishment in dog training. All dogs have their own ideas about what constitutes rewards and punishment and we must be aware of this. To be able to do this we need to have a solid knowledge of dog body language as this is the only way we can understand how the dog feels about something. For a list of these please follow this link http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/DogBodylanguage.

We can choose our methods to train dogs. But in doing so we should be aware of the Animal Welfare Act Five Freedoms:



Examples of Methods breaching Five Freedoms

Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour • Depriving dogs of food and water as a punishment for “undesired “behaviour.
• Making a dog earn all its daily food with compliance to requests.
Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area. • Not allowing dogs access to a comfortable place as punishment.
• Removing valued resources
Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment. • To use any form of pain inducing method to punish behaviour. E.G yanking on a lead, using Static shock collars, throwing things at dogs, smacking dogs anything that causes pain and possible injury.
Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind • Restricting space long term to prevent behaviours or to punish them.
• Not allowing dogs to sniff, explore, interact socially for prolonged periods of time as a means of prevention of behaviour (unless the social contact is being prevented to prevent aggression)
Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering. • Use of static shock collars
• Use of devices which restrict breathing (some forms of leads and collars)
• Bullying and intimidating (E.g. alpha rolls, pinning, shouting, standing over in an intimidating manner.
• Shouting, hitting, confining.


As can be seen from this list, some of the more traditional methods of training breach the Animal Welfare Acts Five Freedoms (2006).As trainers and dog owners, we are obliged to follow the law when training dogs.

In Summary

So dogs have different needs and their experiences of what is punishment and what is not can depend on the dog. It is clear that some methods of training breach the U.K.’s Animal Welfare Act (2006) so should not be used in dog training. However, it is not as simple as that because some things we would think a dog might like, are not liked and we need good observation skills to be able to know this. Make sure you know what your dog, or the dog you are training finds punishing and reinforcing. We should avoid Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement which both involve things which cause distress, fear or pain for the dog. An emphasis on positive reinforcement is best, as long as we know what the dog likes, with occasional use of negative punishment so that the dog does not get rewarded for an undesirable behaviour.