Why Punishment Should be Avoided

What is punishment?

Punishment can be described as an intervention intended to decrease the future occurrence of an action or behavior. There are two types of punishment: positive and negative. That does not mean that some punishment is good and some is bad.

Positive punishment” is a training intervention in which an unpleasant reinforcer is applied to make a behavior happen less often, whereas with positive reinforcement, a pleasant reinforcer such as food or toys is applied to make the behavior happen more often. Unpleasant reinforcers include physical corrections done with devices (choke collars, shock collars, spray bottles), corrections done with a person’s body (knee prods, slapping), frightening noises (yelling, buzzing), and intimidating gestures (raised hand, alpha roll).

You may occasionally hear the term “negative punishment”. Negative punishment is a training intervention in which something desirable is removed to decrease a behavior. For example, if your dog barks as you are about to open the door, and you still open the door, then barking will continue to be a useful and repeated behavior because it leads to a reward (the door being opened). However, if your dog barks and, instead of opening the door, you walk away and your dog is now stuck inside, you have used negative punishment: you removed the valuable reward (being let outside) to decrease the behavior (barking). In future, your dog is less likely to bark because barking did not result in the door being opened.

"Positive reinforcement is always easy and safe."

Negative punishment can be a humane and effective training technique when done properly. However, if applied incorrectly, negative punishment can cause your pet to become frustrated. On the other hand, positive reinforcement is always easy and safe.

For the rest of this handout, unless specified otherwise, the term “punishment” will mean positive punishment: the application of something aversive to reduce the frequency of a behavior.

What are the risks of using punishment?

  • Punishment can cause long-lasting fear and permanently damage your pet’s trust in you.
  • When animals are frightened or hurt, they can display aggression, which can be dangerous for you or those around you.
  • Punishment is designed to stop behaviors, but punishment does not inform your dog which behavior to do instead. This can create frustration and confusion.
  • Inflicting pain is not a necessary or humane teaching strategy. It is difficult to know how much any purposeful, painful intervention might hurt your pet.

Why does my pet act guilty?

Pets are social animals, and they use body language to communicate. It is up to us to interpret what they are trying to say. The guilty look is a good example. When dogs and cats lower their bodies, put their ears back softly, rapidly blink their eyes, and/or avoid looking at us directly, they might in fact look “guilty”. Especially if, coincidentally, they are near the “scene of a crime,” such as a torn-up shoe or puddle of urine.

These postures are, in fact, appeasement gestures. Social animals use these postures to avoid confrontation. Our dogs and cats are very sensitive to our emotions. If you notice a mess and begin to feel annoyed, your beloved pet will know. Consider a translation of your pet’s body language that might be more accurate. Your pet is probably trying to say: “I sense you are not happy. Please don’t hurt me; I don’t want to fight”. Your pet is already worried; she does not know why you are angry or unhappy. Were you to punish her at that moment, she would almost certainly become frightened and confused.

"To change an unwanted behavior, you must first learn the reason for the behavior and then teach a more appropriate response."

If you have ever punished your pet in the past, your pet may have learned to anticipate the pending confrontation. For example, your pet could learn that whenever you walk into a room where a rug has been soiled or where damage has been done, you turn into a dangerous person. Soon she will either avoid you or show appeasement (the guilty look) in that situation. However, she would still not understand that she was not supposed to do the damage in the first place. She just knows that you do not like the results of the behavior. Thus, she will continue to chew the rug or urinate in the house because when she is engaged in this activity, she has no guidance.

Pets do behaviors for a reason. They may have been distressed that they were alone, or they may have heard a scary noise outside. Punishing them will not change their behavior. To change an unwanted behavior, you must first learn the reason for the behavior and then teach a more appropriate response.

Even the threat of punishment stops my pet’s misbehavior. Why can’t I use it?

Pets can learn to predict that they are about to be punished. For instance, they may see you pick up the water bottle to spray them. This threatening gesture may stop the behavior when you are present, but it will not teach your pet to refrain from the misbehavior when you are gone. In fact, some bold pets are positively reinforced by your approach and may engage in unwanted behaviors more often when they are “rewarded” by you coming into the room for an interaction.

Visual threats can also trigger a fear response. Your pet may run away when you lift an arm or walk towards them. They cannot determine whether an approaching hand represents a friendly gesture or another punishment. This is especially true for cats: any form of punishment by humans could increase fear of people.

Instead of threatening your pet, it is appropriate to use a combination of supervision and positive reinforcement to teach a more appropriate behavior.

Can punishment be used for training?

Punishment does not teach the pet what is desirable. Training should focus on reinforcing what is desirable rather than  punishing what is undesirable. Punishment can cause confusion, fear, pain and aggression, and it does not guide the dog to the appropriate response.

Does punishment help to show the dog who is in charge or demonstrate dominance?

There is a myth that dogs misbehave in order to be “in charge”. Dogs have been erroneously labelled as “dominant” or “alpha” and training techniques were designed to try to lower the dog’s status. In fact, these strategies rely on punishment to intimidate dogs. Proponents might consider an intervention successful if a dog rolls over in submission or looks away in fear.

"Any intervention to change your dog’s behavior should focus on humanely teaching your dog how to perform appropriate behaviors; the intervention should not involve intimidation or punishment."

New scientific research has confirmed that dogs living with humans very rarely exhibit behaviors that can be explained as attempts to become dominant in a relationship and that using punishment-based techniques to change their behavior is associated with aggression and anxiety. Any intervention to change your dog’s behavior should focus on humanely teaching your dog how to perform appropriate behaviors; the intervention should not involve intimidation or punishment.

My dog is afraid of noises, strangers, and other dogs. He lunges out of control, and I can’t stop him without a prong collar. Is this punishment harming my dog?

Prong collars and other correction devices punish dogs for unwanted behaviors. They are meant to instill fear and pain. Most dogs that lunge do so because they are frightened or frustrated. Applying punishment (e.g, jerking the collar) may stop a behavior for an instant, but over time is likely to cause an increase in your dog’s fear and frustration, which in turn can cause or exacerbate an aggressive response. In fact, some dogs become so frustrated that they turn to bite the leash or even the person holding the leash.

Another problem with using a collar correction is that your dog may associate the pain of the correction with the appearance of the trigger and could become even more aroused during future encounters.

If your dog lunges, it is important to seek professional counseling to learn the reason for the behavior. The underlying motivation should be addressed. Behavior modification and training will focus on helping your dog relax in the face of the stimulus. For some dogs, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning is needed. If your dog’s emotional response is mild, the solution may be as simple as redirecting your dog with a treat.

If I can't punish my pet, how do I stop undesirable behavior?

Training should focus on teaching desirable behaviors instead of stopping undesirable behaviors. Trying to stop behaviors by punishing them can cause your pet to become frustrated as their underlying motivation for the behavior is left unsatisfied. Until training is complete, management, such as increasing supervision and setting up baby gates, can be used to prevent your pet from accessing and being naturally rewarded by doing undesirable behaviors.

Can punishment cause behavior problems?

Punishment can introduce negative emotional responses such as fear and frustration, which in turn can lead your pet to display problematic behavioral responses. For example, if a dog is continually punished for joyfully barking when visitors arrive, he may become fearful of visitors, as the arrival of the visitor predicts that he will be punished in some way. Similarly, dogs that are scolded for jumping up when greeting people may develop a fear of greeting people.  

"Punishment can introduce negative emotional responses such as fear and frustration, which in turn can lead your pet to display problematic behavioral responses."

Another possible outcome of punishment is that your pet could become frustrated and begin to exhibit non-functional behaviors, such as spinning or tail chasing. These behaviors, known as displacement behaviors, arise when pets are in a state of conflict. This might occur if your responses to your pet are inconsistent. For example, if some greetings and attention-seeking behaviors are encouraged but others are punished, then it can be unclear to your pet whether to interact with you.

Be consistent and be specific: teach your pet the behavior you would like him to exhibit in each context, and consistently reward only that behavior.