Though we prefer positive reinforcement over punishments, we can’t deny the fact that there are families that feel that they must use punishments. If you choose to use punishments with your dog, the punishment guidelines on this page give instruction on how to use punishments in dog training.
Punishments cannot be taken lightly. They must be used with great care. This page is written from the perspective of someone who considers herself a positive reinforcement trainer. I rarely (if ever) use punishments. However, I understand both sides of the argument for and against punishments. If you choose to punish your dog, please consider adhering to these guidelines.
There are reasons that many feel that punishments are helpful and there are certainly times when some would even deem them necessary. 100% reward-based positive reinforcement training is more time-consuming than a training program that incorporates a few punishments. In addition, training with no corrections whatsoever can be difficult for many typical pet owners, especially those lacking adequate dog training skills.
However, keep in mind that most behaviors can be stopped with positive reinforcement along with negative punishments (taking something away from the dog that he enjoys), control, diversion, extinction, and/or patience. Read our page entitled Stop Bad Behavior Positively for more information on how to stop bad behavior without resorting to punishments.
Positive reinforcement training is better than punishment based training. See why on our page on Why Positive Reinforcement is Best. However, for those times when you feel you need a correction, here are a few guidelines.
The Dog Must Understand Why
The first and most important guideline in giving punishments is that the puppy or dog must understand what he has done wrong. You must be absolutely sure that your dog is not simply confused. Many people overestimate what dogs know and understand.
For instance, dogs do not generalize learning the way people do. A dog that has been taught to sit in the kitchen will usually not know what he is being asked to do when he is asked to sit on the front lawn. You must teach in a wide variety of places and in a wide variety of situations before full learning takes place.
Further, if your dog is in a more stressful or highly stimulating environment than he is highly acclimated to, his abilities to think clearly will drastically be reduced. It could appear that the dog is refusing to obey when in actuality, he is merely confused.
If there is any doubt, do not give a punishment. Don’t leave your dog feeling confused about what caused the punishment.
This is one of several reasons that we do not punish very young puppies. You need to teach behaviors before you can successfully correct a dog for not doing them. Understanding has to be solid or a punishment will do more harm than good.
The Dog Must Know How to Stop The Correction
This leads me to the second vitally important guideline. The dog must know how to correct his behavior and stop the correction. You must make absolutely sure that you are not leaving your dog in a position of being confused as to how to stop the correction.
Only Use Punishments To Stop Poor Behavior
Our third guideline is to only punish behaviors that cannot be easily corrected with reward based training. I wouldn’t even consider a punishment for anything other than stopping self-rewarding behaviors. Positive reinforcement along with control is always a better way when teaching a dog to DO something. Reserve punishments for teaching a dog what he should NOT DO.
Don’t Use Punishments To Teach Good Behavior
For example, if you are teaching a puppy to sit or down or stay, there is no reason EVER to punish him when he doesn’t do what you ask. There could be several reasons for his lack of compliance, all of which can be easily remedied with reward based training and positive reinforcement.
Reserve Punishments for Self Rewarding Behaviors
The fourth guideline is to reserve punishments for self-rewarding behavior. There is no need to punish behaviors that are not intrinsically rewarding to the dog. If there is no reward, the behavior will disappear on its on.
How Strong Should the Punishment Be?
The fifth guideline is to make the punishment just strong enough to take the reward out of the behavior. However, don’t use a punishment that is so weak that the dog sees the punishment as a nag to be ignored. Punishments do not need to be painful to accomplish this goal. However, they do need to be somewhat uncomfortable and unpleasant. It needs to be a deterrent for the bad behavior, but no more than that.
The Dog Needs To Feel Like He Has Control of the Consequences of His Own Behavior
The sixth principle has to do with how the dog feels about what caused the correction. The dog needs to feel as if he himself has control of the consequences of his own behavior. If at all possible, the dog should feel like he himself caused the punishment to happen. If a dog feels like he caused the punishment, it gives him control over how to stop it. This thought process in a dog greatly reduces any chance of the dog feeling frustrated and confused.
Dogs who feel in control of their own consequences are more inclined to obey the rules than those who are coerced into obeying by domination or a pack leadership mentality. Respect is earned in the dog world. It is not demanded. The pack leadership mentality is old fashioned and out-dated. It has been shown to cause aggression and is not beneficial.
Give Punishments With a Matter-of-fact Unemotional Attitude
The seventh guideline has to do with the person’s emotional state. Punishments need to be given with a matter-of-fact attitude without anger. Yelling or acting out of control are never in order.
An unpleasant consequence just needs to happen to the dog and if possible, he doesn’t need to know it came from you. It is best if he thinks that he caused the punishment himself. If he feels that he can be in control of his own consequences, he will have more motivation to stop the behavior. He will associate bad feelings with the behavior. Otherwise, he will learn to associate bad feelings toward you. The dog needs to see you as a kind and fair leader. He needs to see himself as in control of the consequences of his behavior.
Never Punish a Fearful Dog
The eighth guideline is super important. Never punish a dog who is fearful. For example, if your dog or puppy is pulling on the leash because he is afraid of an approaching loud and large vehicle, a punishment will only escalate the fear. Deal with the fear and then work on loose leash walking at another time when the dog has regained his confidence.
Punishments Should Not Cause Stress or Pain
Our ninth guideline is to keep the punishment non-painful and stress-free. Stress interferes with learning. The goal of the punishment is for the dog to want to figure out how to make the correction go away and how to move back toward the good feelings that come with positive reinforcement. Stress and fear are not compatible with learning.
Corrections should have no emotions attached to them for them to have their maximum benefit. The dog should not feel stressed, frustrated, or angry. The only thing he should feel is motivation to change his poor behavior.
Don’t Let the Correction Linger
After a correction has been used and a dog is being obedient, don’t forget to reward the dog. It is important that you bring that dog right back up into a emotional state.
Consider the Dog’s Temperament and State of Mind
The tenth guideline is consideration of the dog’s temperament and current state of mind. Soft tempered dogs might cave under the slightest correction. Dogs with harder temperaments or dogs who are in a high drive state of mind will need a stronger correction in order to get results. Always err on the side of caution. Do not give too hard of a correction! If your correction is not hard enough, you can always give another.
Do Not Forget to FREQUENTLY Reward Good Behavior
The eleventh guideline is one of the most important. Do not forget to notice and reward good behaviors. Too often, families are busy and the dog only gets noticed when he is acting up. Reward based training won’t work if the dog is not regularly and often being rewarded for good behavior.
Type Punishments to Use
The last guideline involves the type punishment to administer and not to administer. We’ve divided punishments into three categories: those to avoid, those that are okay, and those few that are truly beneficial.
Punishments to Avoid
A few corrections that are never in order include: hitting, screaming, kicking, causing real fear of any kind (though a brief mild startle could be a good option to distract), domination, alpha rolls, ear pinches, strong jerks from a leash, or powerful shocks from a remote collar.
Acceptable (Though Not Ideal) Punishments
Leash corrections are popular and for good reason. Leash pulling is one of the most common self-rewarding behaviors and is a difficult behavior to stop with positive methods alone. Non-painful but uncomfortable “leash pops” can be a good temporary solution as can the corrections that come from a head halter.
Shock collars are another popular punishment. There is a huge movement called “off Leash Training” that is advocated by many “Balanced” trainers. The remote collar is used to fine tune heeling and to give owners opportunity for control without a leash. We don’t use this type training. However, neither do we condemn it if the corrections are carried out absolutely correctly. As with any punishments, GREAT care needs to be taken. We feel that too many families (and trainers) become too dependent on this form of punishment. It is easy. It works. However, we don’t think it is best.
Bark collars are another popular shock collar. Unlike traditional remote collars, you have little control over the collar malfunctioning. I would never use a bark collar unless I was carefully monitoring the dog. Bark collars are not training tools that bring about permanent change. Dogs quickly learn when the collar is on. When it is off, they usually go back to barking.
We don’t like shock collars used with invisible fences for many reasons which are beyond the scope of this article. However, we understand that for some, this might be the only option.
A correctly used remote collar on a low setting could be an okay (though not ideal) option. If you should choose to use a shock collar of any kind, make sure you and the dog have been properly trained to it before using it as a correction tool.
Banishment is one of my favorite corrections. Short “time outs” can accomplish a lot. They are unpleasant, yet non-stressful. They give a dog an opportunity to think about how to turn his life back toward reward based training again. A half a minute in a pen or a separate room is an excellent option.
A verbal “no” is a good correction and contrary to popular believe, it does not have to be an angry “no”. Once the word is taught, a calmly spoken “no” gives good information to a positively trained dog.
Front hook harnesses are good tools for training loose leash walking. They don’t cause pain. However, when a dog pulls forward and the leash causes him to turn around, it is indeed a punishment.
Many “positive only” trainers also recommend head halters such as the Halty. These are also punishment tools although they are not considered to be painful. However, head halters, like many other correction tools need to be used with care. Jerk too hard and these halters can be dangerous. Used incorrectly, head halters could be even more dangerous than a prong collar.
Punishments should always be reserved as a last resort. Positive reinforcement along with a controlled environment is always better. See our post on How to Use Positive Reinforcement training. Punishments are never really necessary. However, if you are unable to stop poor behavior with positive reinforcements alone, punishments given according to these guidelines are better than allowing bad behavior to continue indefinitely.