Who's a Good Dog?

You’re doing it wrong!


The “correct” use of punishment (positive punishment or negative reinforcement) involves causing enough pain to the dog to stop a behavior. That is not something I want to do to a dog or my relationship to a dog. And I don’t care if that is a dog living with a loving family or dumped in a shelter for behavior problems. There are better (more humane) ways to communicate with dogs than causing them pain. Period.


Franzi earned his Canine Good Citizen certification and some Rally Qs. All skills taught with positive reinforcement.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s look at a rationale that I have heard many times from those willing to use force, pain or intimidation: If a [insert painful method of choice here–shock collar, prong collar, finger jab, etc.] is used correctly, it works!  In other words, you’re doing it wrong!  But here’s the thing that those people NEVER say:  that argument also applies to positive training. In other words, when done correctly, positive training also works. Moreover, unlike punishment-based approaches, there is no risk of harming the dog physically or emotionally, or harming your relationship with the dog.

Saying positive training doesn’t work is like saying that that the laws of gravity don’t apply to you. All beings repeat behaviors that work and avoid ones that don’t. If positive training “isn’t working” for a particular dog, there is something wrong with the training plan or the trainer’s skills. And of course you can say the same thing about punishment–if it’s not working (e.g., if a dog continues to pull in spite of multiple collar corrections, or when wearing a certain type of collar), then it’s the training plan or the trainer’s lack of skill.  But here the thing:  when punishment doesn’t work, trainers typically increase the level of punishment (e.g., the low setting on the shock collar isn’t working? let’s turn it up a few notches).

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Arlo using his nose to find all of the smells. He is off leash and there are other dogs in the room. Trained with positive reinforcement.

The problem–and the reason why I don’t use aversive tools or recommend them to clients–is that punishment has fallout that is very hard to predict. There is no guarantee that the dog will associate the discomfort of, say, crossing the barrier for an electric fence with crossing the barrier.  He could, instead, associate the pain with dogs walking by. Why? Because every time he approaches the barrier to chase off other dogs (a common and normal, although not desirable, behavior for dogs left alone in their yards) he receives a painful shock.

Whenever these conversations happen about whether it’s okay to hurt a dog in the name of training, people often turn to the most extreme example–a dog who will be euthanized for aggression.   If that is your concern—if you have such a dog–then you need a certified behaviorist, not a shock collar.

Any knowledgeable trainer will tell you that dog training is not a matter of opinion about this or that approach. It should be based on the most current behavior and canine science. And all of that research says you will get results when punishment and reinforcement are correctly applied.  That research also says that using punishment  comes with the risk of creating new problems (e.g. aggression) or exacerbating existing ones.  Why take that risk when there are humane and effective methods you could use instead?  You will sometimes hear that “different things work for different dogs.” And that is true—again, a good trainer is always monitoring your dog and willing to make adjustments to the training plan as she goes. But saying different things work for different dogs is not the same as saying that the laws of learning (+R, -R,+P, -P) apply differently. The laws of learning affect all animals (humans included) in the same way. We repeat what works. We avoid what doesn’t. And we know that from a long history of peer-reviewed scientific research. Zazie Todd at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog keeps an excellent, up-to-date bibliography of resources on dog training. If you want to understand the science behind punishment- as well as positive-reinforcement-based training, go take a look.


Maria, fresh from digging holes in the back yard. We are working on it… 🙂

Please don’t believe anyone who tells you he has a “quick fix,” or the “secret” to some behavior problem. Or that hurting your dog is the only way to save your dog. It’s simply not true. Training is a process. Problems aren’t fixed overnight, or in a 1-hour television show, or with a single, magical tool. Training your dog is about building trust and relationship, and that can’t happen if your dog is hurting, intimidated or afraid.

4 thoughts on “You’re doing it wrong!

  1. Yes! This is so true! I honestly cringe when I hear someone say “oh positive reinforcement training didn’t work for my dog”. It’s true that when it doesn’t work it’s because the trainer doesn’t have enough skills to apply it. The quadrants are defined by their functions so if something didn’t work (let’s say positive reinforcement) it’s not positive reinforcement that failed, it’s the procedure. Great article! Another thing people need to ask themselves: why did it work? Some things work by drilling fear into the dog or building a trusting relationship. I myself prefer positive reinforcement training as I have used positive punishment (I still use it but accidentally) and it was the worst thing I could’ve done. I lost all of our bond, his trust and confidence but I’m working on improving it.

  2. Pingback: Dissecting Sit | Who's a Good Dog?

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