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Dog Punishment vs Positive Reinforcement

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Punishment for your dog is applying a stimulus to decrease the chance that a behavior will be repeated.  For any punishment to be effective, it must coincide with the undesirable behavior and be unpleasant enough to deter the pet from repeating the behavior.  Remember that the idea is to punish the behavior, not the pet.  Punishment to discourage an undesirable behavior might be acceptable, but punishment as a form of training is not appropriate and can lead to fear and avoidance in your pet.  Good training uses shaping or prompting techniques, along with rewards such as food or praise.  By training our pets and providing outlets for their needs, inappropriate behavior is less likely to develop, and punishment is seldom necessary.

Punishment should never be considered unless the pet has been provided with the means to satisfy both its nature and its needs.  Problems such as chewing and other forms of destructiveness can be part of normal exploratory play.  Dogs that are chewers should be provided with appropriate exercise and appealing chew toys before any attempts to punish undesirable chewing are made.

The key to successful punishment in your pet is to ensure that the undesirable behavior is associated with an unpleasant consequence.  Punishment should take place while the behavior is occurring, not afterward.  Physical punishment is likely to lead to fear of the owner (or people in general) or fear of hands.

Direct interactive punishment interrupts an undesirable behavior such as barking as soon as it starts.  For example, loud clapping or rattling a “shaker can” will usually get your pet’s attention, and the dog’s behavior can then be redirected to another more positive activity.  However, for such a technique to be effective, it must be done consistently, which is not always practical.  In addition, startling your pet will not work and should be discontinued immediately if it responds with aggression.

Remote punishment techniques require that your pet can be monitored (to determine when the undesirable behavior begins) and punished when you are not home or remain out of sight.  Booby traps can be set to deter your pet from certain activities.  For example, balloons fastened to furniture will pop loudly when your pet jumps up, deterring the pet from jumping up again.  Taste deterrents (available commercially) can be helpful for destructive chewing.

Unlike these forms of positive punishment, in which something unpleasant happens in response to undesirable behavior, negative punishment removes something pleasant from the pet in response to undesirable behavior.  Stopping play and ignoring your puppy when the puppy starts “play biting” is an example.

Punishing undesirable behavior once it has stopped serves no purpose and can lead to a fearful or aggressive pet.  Although using appropriate environmental booby traps or various products designed for punishment can be helpful, the best way to avoid undesirable behavior is to supervise your pet at all times when you are around and to prevent access to potential problem areas when you are not available.

Q&A

Is it OK to punish a dog for misbehaving?

Isolated instances of punishment to discourage undesirable behavior are sometimes acceptable, but punishment is generally not an effective training technique.  It is also important to remember that effective punishment must be administered while the behavior is occurring and must be seen as unpleasant. 

What are some types of punishment?

“Positive” punishment applies an unpleasant experience (eg, a loud hand clap to stop barking), whereas “negative” punishment removes a pleasant experience (eg, stopping play when your puppy bites).  Remote punishment applies an unpleasant experience from a distance, such as squirt-gun spray to discourage furniture chewing. 

What about when I am not home?

Remote-punishment techniques such as “booby traps” allow punishment to be administered when the undesirable behavior occurs while you are away.  For example, balloons or other noisemakers placed on a sofa can sometimes be used to deter your pet from jumping on furniture. 

Can I punish my dog when I find evidence of bad behavior (eg, chewed furniture)?

No!  Punishing undesirable behavior after it has stopped serves no purpose and can lead to a fearful or aggressive pet. 

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas,V.M.D.
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