The most widely debated topic in the dog training world revolves around the question of punishments and positive reinforcement. Is positive reinforcement enough in dog training? Is there a time or place where punishments are necessary or helpful?
Traditional punishment based trainers as well as those calling themselves “balanced trainers” say that positive reinforcement is not enough. These trainers will say that there are indeed times that punishments should be used.
Most reward based trainers, especially those who claim to be “Positive Only” trainers will disagree. They say that positive-only training is sufficient for all dogs in all situations.
Whether or not positive reinforcement or punishment-based training is better is a debated topic. However, the bigger debate is on whether punishments should EVER be used. That question is the subject of this page.
What is a Punishment?
A punishment is something that is used to decrease a behavior. All punishments are either “positive punishments” or “negative punishments.” A lot of people in the dog training world seem to think that “positive” means “good” and “negative” means “bad”. However, this is not the case.
Using a “positive punishment” means that you are adding something to the training session to decrease a behavior. For example, yanking on the leash, using a shock collar, hitting your dog, and telling your dog “no” are all positive punishments. Obviously, some are much worse than others.
Using a “negative punishment” means that you are taking something away from the training session to decrease a behavior. This is often a fantastic way to train a dog without scaring or hurting your dog.
Here is a good example. Your dog is overly excited to see you. He jumps on you. You leave the room for a few minutes. Leaving the dog is a negative punishment. You have taken something away from the dog that he wants: yourself. This is the negative part or the taking away part. What makes it a punishment is that it will decrease the chances of the behavior being repeated. Continue leaving every time your dog jumps and he will learn that jumping is no fun. It won’t take long for him to stop jumping so that he can keep you around.
Negative punishment is a tremendous tool when training with rward based training. Almost all “positive only” trainers recommend negative punishment. However, the source of controversy is positive punishment. The rest of this page will be about positive punishment only. Therefore, I will be referring to positive punishments as plain “punishments” for simplicity’s sake.
Positive Reinforcements are Better, but Non-Painful Punishments COULD be Helpful For Some
We understand the philosophies of both positive-only as well as balanced trainers. We’ve trained using both methods at some point in the past. We know many trainers on both sides of the “Punishments or Not” debate who are very well respected. However, our experience has been and scientific research has proven that positive reinforcement yields better results when done correctly. Read why on our page entitled 10 Reasons for Reward Based Training. Continue reading this page for how to stop bad behavior both with and without punishments.
Reward-Based Training Alone IS Possible
Reward-based training alone is possible. Positive reinforcement is better if a person has the skill and desire to master positive training techniques. In almost all situations, positive reinforcement can work. The key is to learn a few non-punishment based techniques to stop bad behavior. Then use reward-based training to train an alternative behavior.
Non-punishment Training Techniques
So, how do you stop bad behavior without resorting to punishments? There are several excellent techniques that work. As has already been mentioned, negative punishment or taking something away from the puppy that he wants is a very good method for stopping bad behavior. Controlling your puppy and his environment is another way to stop bad behavior. Diverting your puppy’s attention is a third method. Waiting on unrewarded bad behaviors to fade on their own is a fourth. We discuss these techniques in more detail in our article entitled Stop Bad Behavior Positively. These methods are more effective and produce better results than punishments.
However, in our opinion, blanket statements prohibiting punishments are limiting families in their ability to have a well-trained dog. We believe that there are times when indeed a punishment can enhance training. However if punishments are going to be used and not produce unwanted side effects, they must be used under very strict guidelines. These guidelines will be discussed in an upcoming post.
Mild punishments are certainly better than being permissive and allowing a dog to practice bad behavior.
Times When We at Summer Brook Use Mild Punishments
We ourselves do not use punishments at all with very young puppies or adult dogs that we are training for competitive obedience with one exception. We use a negative marker word to provide information to the puppy or dog. It is important to us that our puppies and dogs know when they are right or wrong. We will say a calm “no” when they have done the wrong thing. We don’t yell or even raise our voices. Our puppies and dogs know that when they hear the word “no”, they need to try something different in order to earn their reward. Although a calm “no” is not painful, it is indeed a mild punishment.
Times That Inexperienced Trainers Might Need Punishments
In addition to these times that we ourselves use punishments, a typical American family will find punishments helpful in other situations for a couple of reasons. First of all, training with positive reinforcement takes more time than punishment based training. Secondly, for the most part, positive reinforcement training also requires more skill and patience. For some, it can be very difficult to stop certain behaviors without the use of any kind of punishment.
Self Rewarding Behaviors Can Be Difficult to Stop Without Punishments
Self-rewarding behaviors are the ones that present a problem. In fact, traditional and balanced trainers claim that these behaviors cannot be stopped without punishments. Self-rewarding behaviors need to be given special consideration.
An example of a very common self-rewarding behavior is leash pulling. We’ve written an entire page on “Self Rewarding Behaviors” and how to handle them. We will post this page soon. Check back!
In summary, there are 3 and only 3 options with self-rewarding behaviors. The first option is to train an alternative behavior which is MORE rewarding than the undesirable behavior. This is the best option. However, it is also the option that requires the most time and training skill.
The second option is simply to give up on training the dog not to do the behavior. This means resigning yourself to either managing or living with the bad behavior. This is what we call permissiveness.
The third option is to add a punishment to the situation.
Without this third option, some families are unable train an alternate behavior. Many families (including us) do not want to resort to permissiveness. Therefore, punishments become the only option available.
Punishments Don’t Have to Be Painful
However, keep in mind that the scientific definition of a punishment is “anything that makes a behavior less likely to be repeated”. Is that not what everyone wants with regard to undesirable behaviors? We want the bad behaviors to not be repeated. Notice that this definition of a punishment has no mention of the word pain.
The question that needs to be answered is this. What kinds of things will cause behaviors to be less likely to be repeated while at the same time remaining humane and fair to the dog?
The consequence cannot be pleasant. It would then be a reward.
However, the consequence doesn’t have to be painful. Neither does it need to be given with an attitude of dominance. There is no need for force or even for “pack leadership”.
In those situations where families are unable to stop certain behaviors without punishments, non-painful punishments given according to very strict guidelines are better than permissiveness. Look for our coming soon page on “Punishment Guidelines” for more details.
Punishments Can Have Side Effects
If families don’t heed these guidelines, punishments incorrectly given can have serious side effects. Some of these side effects are immediately apparent. However, the dog will internalize most of these side effects. Emotional problems from punishments often show up weeks or months later. Because of the possibility of side effects, punishments should only be used as a last resort. Use punishments only when you are unable to train certain behaviors with positive methods.
Punishments are ONLY necessary when someone has fallen short in one or more areas of reward based training. However, failing to train a self rewarding behavior with positive methods alone is nothing to be ashamed of. Self rewarding behaviors can be difficult.
Many, many people train their dogs with punishments. Most dogs do not experience side effects from them. Permissiveness is worse than appropriately given punishments. However, inappropriately given punishments can have the most serious consequences of any training mistakes.
We’ve worked with dogs who have had problems because of permissive training. We’ve also worked with dogs who were harshly or incorrectly punished. Problems caused by permissiveness are easier to fix than those caused by harsh punishments.
Don’t Turn to Punishments Prematurely
Most people tend to turn to punishments far too quickly, especially those following the advice of traditional and “balanced” trainers. They claim that punishments are the better option. However, they don’t fully understand the magnitude of what positive training can do. Positive reinforcement can be successful in far more situations than these trainers will credit it for.
Positive Training; Not Permissiveness
At the risk of being redundant, we want to make it clear that positive training is NOT the same as permissiveness. Allowing a dog to practice poor behavior is never a good choice. Good reward-based training never gives way to permissiveness.
Reward based training should always be the first line of defense for training good behavior. It is the best option even for stopping poor behavior.
However, non-painful properly given punishments are a viable option under certain circumstances. Some families are unable to adequately train alternative good behaviors with positive reinforcement alone. Others cannot stop bad behaviors. In these cases, punishments are a better option than permissiveness.
Punishments should always be the last resort. We rarely, if ever use punishments ourselves. However, many families do not have the training skills necessary for successfully training a dog with positive reinforcement alone.
Our opinions are based on reading studies, opinions, and methods. Our beliefs are based on talking to a multitude of trainers with various perspectives. Most importantly our opinion is based on our own experience. We’ve trained over a hundred puppies and have successfully competed at high levels in AKC obedience trials. We’ve tried it all and have seen first hand what works and what doesn’t.