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Taking a Stand on the Use of Punishment in Dog Training

Written by Heather Norton-Bower, DVM.

In response to the rising popularity of dominance-based dog-training shows, such as The Dog Whisperer and the resurgence of punishment-based dog-training techniques, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recently took an official stand against the general use of punishment in dog training and dog behavior modification.

The AVSAB President Dr. John Ciribassi said in regards to this public announcement, "A major problem with using punishment is that is suppresses behavior temporarily but does not necessarily modify the underlying cause of the behavior. As a result, it may make animals worse in the long run. For example, a fear-aggressive dog may become more fearful of people, making future aggression more likely." The AVSAB's Position Statement and Guidelines on the Use of Punishment for Dealing with Behavior Problems in Animals can help both owners and veterinarians understand the controversies behind using punishment techniques (such as choke chains, pinch collars, electronic bark collars, and alpha rolls).


There are many reasons why the AVSAB discourages the use of punishment in dog training/behavior modification techniques. Some of these include the following:

1) Regardless of the intensity of the punishment, punishment can cause some animals to become extremely fearful, which can generalize to other contexts/situations.
EXAMPLE: Squeezing a puppy's muzzle against its teeth or taking a hold of its scruff to reduce the incidence of "puppy biting" may eventually make it "head-shy" or even fear-aggressive towards the owner's or a non-owner's hand.

2) Punishment can facilitate or even cause aggressive behavior. EXAMPLE: A dominant dog that is alpha-rolled by its owner or trainer may instinctively defend itself by acting more aggressive, making the situation even more dangerous.

3) Punishment can suppress behaviors, including those that warn of aggression. This could then represent a danger to an owner who has used punishment in their training or to those that come into future contact with the pet. EXAMPLE: A fearful dog has learned that he will be punished with a pinch collar if he growls at people. He wants to avoid being punished, so he begins to avoid growling in situations in which he was previously punished. The next time he is presented with a situation that is fearful to him he "spontaneously" nips/bites/attacks without giving any warning clues.

4) Punishment can teach animals to associate their owners, other animals, specific contexts, or environments with unpleasant experiences. EXAMPLE: A dog is punished with a choke chain or pinch collar while out on a walk when he gets excited and barks at other dogs. Besides the fact that this behavior is seldom reduced by these punishment-type collars, the dog begins to associate other dogs with being punished and may begin to develop a fear-aggressive behavior towards other dogs.

5) Punishment often does not address the underlying cause of a behavior or teach alternative behaviors. EXAMPLE: A dog has a "jumping up" problem. A choke chain collar is used as punishment when this behavior occurs. When the collar is applied, the behavior temporarily is suppressed. However, the pet hasn't learned what to do in the place of jumping, only that it will feel pain when it jumps up.

One of the most important reasons that punishment is not recommended for first-line or early –use treatment for behavior problems is that it can erode the human-animal bond. "We can have a problem with the pet not trusting the owner because it is unable to consistently anticipate what the owner is going to do in a given situation, " said AVSAB's Ciribassi. No matter how hard we try, people tend to punish inconsistently and punishment is often a consequence of our own anger or frustration, often used well after the bad behavior occurred and often overly intense and prolonged. Dogs are therefore left confused or anxious, which only fuels the bad behavior. What would help our canine friends with behavior issues?

The AVSAB recommends methods of training that focus on:

A) Reinforcing desired behaviors EXAMPLE: Visitors come to the house and the dog excitedly jumps up on them in trying to gain their attention. The visitors are told not to give any attention to the dog until he sits. When the dog gives up jumping and sits down either spontaneously or after a sit command has been verbalized one time, he is given a food award/verbal praise/attention. We are reinforcing a desired behavior, to have the pet sit when visitors arrive at the door.

B) Removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors EXAMPLE: In the previous example, there may have been a visitor that reinforced the jumping behavior by lavishing attention on the jumping dog. This kind of attention would have been reinforcement for the inappropriate behavior. Removing this reinforcer makes it more likely that the pet will perform a more appropriate behavior such as sitting.

C) Addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior. EXAMPLE: To continue the dog jumping example, an owner frustrated with their jumping dog could look at things from the dog's perspective/emotional state (the pet is so excited that the simple statement of "no jump" is not going to work!). The owner could also then look at the environmental conditions that are driving the jumping behavior (the pet has been reinforced by years of visitors that lavish their undivided attention on the pet, things that precede this attention include knocking/door bells ringing/the door opening/the owner yelling at the pet to not jump and further increasing its excitement level—all these reinforcers are part of the collective environmental conditions that may be driving the behavior and they all have to be considered in trying to help this pet learn other more appropriate behaviors).

addendum: See Psychcology Today's Canine Corner Blog by Stanley Coren PhD. discussing why the terminology of Dog Whisperer seems inappropriate when describing the training techniques demonstrated on televion.

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