Paradigm Shifts from Punishment Based Training to More Scientific Methods

In my blog post The HURRIER I Go the BEHINDER I Get, I mentioned how trainers in the dog performance sports world are still steeped in traditional methods of craft based training which has little or nothing to do with a more scientific approaches that have been around for more than 50 years. In this blog I am going to discuss a more darker side of that craft based animal training that still permeates through our current culture of dog trainers anywhere from training pet classes to field, obedience and agility classes etc. That is not to say that reward based training methods have not gained in popularity, however, in a society where we justify punishing humans for anything from small transgressions to more serious ones, it is not surprising that punishment is still the only way for many of us to deal with our dog’s behavioral problems and training.  

I am not holding the moral high ground on punishment and I am not here to judge.  We have all been in a position where we did not know any better and dealt with situations because that is all we knew at the time.  I am also not trying to point fingers or denigrate a certain sector of trainers but rather point out that there are better alternatives (if taught correctly) if one can be open minded.  All one needs to do is reach out and get educated and align yourself with people who can teach you those methods correctly.  We can indeed move away from those traditional more punitive methods of training and make that road less traveled a busier one.



The belief in some circles is that the use of punishers is “the proven way to get the behavior you want and get it quickly”.  It is also widely agreed in those circles that it is a “proven way to get an Obedience OTCH on a dog.”  What is a little more disconcerting is that those same trainers feel that what they use in the form of punishment is only “mild” and actually “motivational”, even semi-positive?  It was also pointed out to me that there are very few if any  positive reinforcement based trainers who have an OTCH.   Although I think there are a handful of true +R based trainers that have achieved an OTCH,  I believe the numbers would increase if there were more opportunities for better education.  My hope is that the following positive punishments may instead be replaced by more humane and scientific methods:

  • Leash pops,

  • Motivational pops (scuffing and grabbing the dogs neck when incorrect)

  • Motivational ear pinches

  • Mild to harsh verbal corrections

  • Intimidation

  • Stepping on the front or back paws

  • Kicking

  • Hitting

  • Hanging

Yes, these corrections are still being used widely but I would like for those people to reconsider that there are alternatives.  The technology is there, however, the implementation by instructors of the principles of behavior (a.k.a. positive based training) may not be properly understood nor applied.   Therein lies the lynch pin as to whether +R based training can work effectively in the world of dog training.  

“Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance”

                                                                      Will Durant

Understanding Reinforcement & Punishment

Learning theory tell us that if the chance of a behavior occurring increases, it is known as ‘reinforcement’. Conversely if the chance of a behavior occurring decreases it is known as punishment’.

The general use of ‘Punishment’ has the implication of doing something very unpleasant to an animal. However, when used in the context of learning theory it’s just a decrease in behavior.   This is where it becomes tricky and can confuse people because the understanding application is very important.  As trainers we can utilize negative punishment or extinction (withholding reinforcement).  Both are punishers although a better and humane one over the use of positive punishment.

To add more complexity to it, early behaviorists split the categories of ‘reinforcement’ and ‘punishment’ into those which occurred when something was added (‘positive’) and those which occurred when something was removed (‘negative’). So, if you add something to the environment and the behavior increases – it is positive reinforcement. Taking away something which causes an increase in behavior is negative reinforcement.

Similarly, negative punishment is a decrease of behavior when something is removed, and positive punishment is a decrease in behavior when something is added.  There is no implication about what is done nor how the animal feels – just a description of whether something is added or removed,and whether the behavior increases or decreases.  Of course I think we can agree that we would rather have behavior increase than decrease so training sessions can be set up to achieve that goal.


From the example above, if something is “added” into the environment and the behavior deceases then it is referred to as Positive Punishment.  The examples given at the beginning of this blog of the types of corrections still used in dog training fall into this category of “adding” something into the environment.  Several consequences can happen with the use of these kinds of punishers. Initially the behavior might correct itself (suppressed) as the handler applies a correction to the animal, however the fallout with using this kind of punishment, can manifest itself in the following ways:

  • It can damage the dog`s confidence, trust in the trainer, relationship between dog and human.

  • Creates fear that can generalize to undesirable behaviors.   The pairing of a stimulus at the time of punishment can cause a multitude of negative conditioned responses (see Punishment and Classical Conditioning below).

  • It can suppress desired behaviors and inhibit offered behaviors. When punishment is no longer present the behavior often returns.

  • The animal begins to exhibit avoidance behaviors.

  • It does not teach the dog WHAT to do.  It does not guide toward a desired behavior – reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.

  • Causes increased aggression and shows the dog that aggression is a way to cope with problems.

  • The dog can develop a punishment callous where the trainer has to inflict great and great punishment on the animal.


PUNISHMENT tells you what NOT TO DO


Many of us know that Ivan Pavlov showed how classical conditioning applied to animals.  However, to give you an idea of how devastating PUNISHMENT it can be on an animal as well as humans let’s look at a famous (although ethically dubious) experiment by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner (1920) on a nine month old infant by the name of “Little Albert”.

Little Albert was tested on his reactions to various stimuli. He was shown a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey and various masks. Albert was described as “on the whole stolid and unemotional” and showed no fear of any of these stimuli. However, what did startle him and cause him to be afraid was when a hammer was struck against a steel bar behind his head. The sudden loud noise would cause Little Albert to burst into tears.

When Little Albert was just over 11 months old the white rat was presented and seconds later the hammer was struck against the steel bar.  This was done 7 times over the next 7 weeks and each time Little Albert burst into tears. By now little Albert only had to see the rat and he immediately showed every sign of fear. He would cry (whether or not the hammer was hit against the steel bar) and he would attempt to crawl away.

In addition to demonstrating that emotional responses could be conditioned (taught) in humans, Watson and Rayner also observed that stimulus generalization had occurred.  In other words, Albert feared not just the white rat, but a wide variety of similar white objects as well. His fear included other furry objects such as Rayner’s fur coat and Watson wearing a Santa Claus beard.  Other phobias extended to the family dog, a fur coat and some cotton wool.   Little Albert had “learned” to fear (a conditioned response) the white rat.

  • Neutral Stimulus: The white rat

  • Unconditioned Stimulus: The loud noise

  • Unconditioned Response: Fear

  • Conditioned Stimulus: The white rat

  • Conditioned Response: Fear

Watson and Rayner had shown that classical conditioning could be used to create a phobia. Over the next few weeks and months the ‘learned response” (fear) was put under extinction, however, even after a full month it was still evident, and the association could be renewed by repeating the original procedure a few times.

This experiment is compelling evidence on how an otherwise neutral stimulus like a rat if associated with something negative can create a multitude of conditioned responses that you would likely not want to create let alone see.   Yet, these associations are constantly being created when we train our dogs with the use of corrections.

MY OWN PERSONAL and profound experience with the pairing of a neutral stimulus to an unconditioned stimulus happened when I was 11 years old.  I recently discovered this phobia/aversion while attending one of Bob Bailey Chicken Workshops in 2016.  The discovery and realization made the hairs on the back on my neck stand up.  I was completely clueless of this connection and how it affected my behavior for over 40 years.  It was and still is truly eye opening.

I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Melbourne, Australia with my brother and cousin who were both 15 years old.  We were not accompanied by our parents on this trip.    My Aunt was a sweet lady but ruled the household with an iron fist and had some pretty stringent rules.  She was also in excess of 350 pounds, so to a 60 pound (when wet) 11-year-old she was very ominous looking.   I remember only a little of that whole trip but I do remember is this:  We sat down to dinner one night where she served us a main dish plus a dessert.  I cannot even remember the main dish but I certainly remember the dessert.   It was Rhubarb.   I am not sure whether it was because the dessert did not look very appetizing or whether I was simply not hungry after the main dish.  My mother and father did not usually make desserts.  Our main dishes were always enough for me.  However, my Aunt did not take “NO” for an answer.  In her household “everyone” ate what was in front of them.  I could not stomach the thought of eating the dessert and told my Aunt that I could not eat any more.  She proceeded to tell me that I could not get up off the table until I ate my dessert.  She was defiant and stood her ground.  I remember feeling terrified.  My parents were not there and my Aunt seemed like she would hold me hostage at the table.  I eventually dissolved into tears from the fear of whatever repercussions were about to happen.  It seemed like an eternity but eventually my Aunt took pity on me and let me leave the table.  However, it was not before the damage was done. 

This ONE event changed me and through this ONE association my conditioned response to desserts and cakes of EVERY kind was to completely and utterly avoid them at all costs.   From that day forward I could not stomach eating any cakes or dessert (this did not generalize to chocolate bars or candy but anything that looked like a “cake”).  If I tasted a cake it was only one bite and it was enough to feel that lump in my throat. It was obvious I generalized this conditioned response to cakes of any kind.  To this day (over 40 years) I still have an aversion to cakes and avoid them with the exception of  “cheese cakes”.  

Now you might say “WOW, that is not a bad thing to happen especially with cakes”, however, it shows you how devastating a negative association can be.   It might not have been cakes.  It could have been some other behavioral consequence.  The point, as I hope you can see, is what can happen when you pair a correction or punishment with a neutral stimulus.  Any wonder why so many dogs “avoid” doing behaviors.  Something to think about for sure.

Another interesting phenomena is that punishing the dog not only affects the animal but it also impacts the person who applies the correction.  Initially it might be reinforcing for the human to “get what they want” from the dog through punishment or punish the bad behavior as the dog “deserves” it.   However, it creates an attitude on low tolerance for unwanted behaviors, being “the boss” or being the “dominant” one and little to do with teaching what you want to see. This can in turn, easily translate to other parts of your life by the way you treat your loved ones , co-workers and friends in a similar fashion.  You can find yourself more aggressive, antagonistic, and inflexible.  Conversely, and I have experienced this personally, is that the more I understood the principals of behavior and knew how to apply them with my dogs the better I began to treat others around me at work, home etc.  I was becoming more open minded, patient, and helpful to others and more aware of how my actions not only impacted my dogs but impacted others around me.  The by-product in all this was that I was becoming a more positive person and treating people with the same respect.  I have my dogs to thank for showing me the way and I hope through this blog it gives you cause to stop and think.

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison”

                                                          Victor Hugo

Of course I am not trying to paint a picture of sweet smelling roses for ourselves and our dogs and that they should exist in a vacuum of utopia where nothing ever goes wrong.  In nature animals do face aversive situations and learn to avoid those aversive stimuli.  But by the same token, this also applies to dog training as well.  Dogs, as well as humans, will learn to avoid punishers, and behaviors associated with them, as they do in nature.  So would you prefer that your dog avoid those behaviors or gravitate to them because there are indeed reinforcing?

With arbitrary punishment there is definite inconsistency and deterioration of behaviors and no doubt there are phobias and fears associated with it over the long run.   If your dog is looking stressed, anxious, slow to perform, distracted or your behaviors are deteriorating and not increasing, I hope is that this blog can make you think twice about what might be causing those responses from your dog.

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