Is aversive punishment ever necessary in dog training?
Myth Busting 101
Firstly, you’ll notice that the title of this blog specifically mentions “aversive” punishment. You might be wondering what other kind of punishment there is. There are two types of punishment at our disposal in behaviour modification. One is the addition of fear, pain or anything that the dog doesn’t like, to decrease an unwanted behaviour. The other type of punishment is the removal of something the dog wanted in order to decrease an unwanted behaviour, for example, puppy nips my hand – I immediately stop playing with him. Dog jumps up for a pet, I removing my hands until he is back on all fours (a human example of this type of punishment would be: “I’m taking away your Xbox until you stop fighting with your sister”). The latter type of punishment is used by trainers all the time and is a valuable tool in behaviour modification. It’s the former type of punishment that is the subject of this article.
I’ve had people tell me that there are certain scenarios in which aversive punishment is the only option they have. I also come across online training resources who advocate it in certain circumstances. Below I have listed some of the more common situations that leave people dumbfounded as to how to train without punishment.
“Ok, rewards are all fine and well in most instances but if my dog is growling at my visitor’s toddler I can’t ignore that and I certainly won’t reward it! So, tell me, how am I supposed to teach him it’s wrong without a good slap?”
The surprising answer here is that you DON’T want to teach him it’s wrong. It’s NOT wrong.
By now you are thinking that I’m away with the fairies but bear with me….
While it is, of course, not desirable behaviour the reason this behaviour isn’t “wrong” is that a growl is one of the ways a dog tells us he is very uncomfortable and if he remains in this situation he could potentially bite. It’s great that a dog gives us warning signs (each dog will vary in the number of warning signs he will give before finally biting). Now, if he receives a good kick up the backside every time he tries to tell you he’s feeling really scared - all this will serve to do is stop him from telling you he is scared. The warning sign has gone away but the fear hasn’t gone away. The bite risk hasn’t gone away. You have essentially taken the batteries out of the smoke alarm.
Rather than punish the warning sign, you need to acknowledge that fear is at the core of the situation and that’s what really needs to be addressed. What you should do in this instance is remove the dog from the vicinity of the child immediately and then enlist a professional to work with you with a view to getting the dog less afraid of children and, in the meantime, ensure that he is never so close to children that he is afraid or that the child is in harm’s way. It will often be a slow process. That is the nature of removing fear – it’s a hard slog and the best treatment is prevention (ensuring that dogs are used to children from an early age and always overseeing interactions to ensure toddlers aren’t terrorising the dog) but, of course, hindsight is 20:20! A good trainer will be able to guide you through the dual process of management (ensuring dog is never closer to a child than he is comfortable with – ever) and changing the dogs emotional response to being around children so that over time he can get closer and closer to children and still be comfortable.
Owner absent destruction or soiling
“He knew he had done something wrong. You should have seen him when I came home – he was cowering and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. How can I not punish him when he’s doing things he knows he shouldn’t do?”
Ah, this old peach! Every trainer will be familiar with this one. We have been ‘myth busting’ this one for years but, with the recent slew of YouTube videos which show dogs apparently showing remorse for some destruction or other, it’s a bit like swimming against the tide.
Let’s say, for example, that your dog has ripped up a cushion while you were out of the house. You come home and see it and you punish him. Maybe you shout at him and slap him on the nose. He has to be told he can’t do that and you don’t know any other way to communicate that. A week later, you come home and this time it’s your curtain. A lot more expensive to replace than a cushion, you really lose your rag this time – as well as a punishment, you’re frosty with him for the rest of the day. Some time passes and you return home one day to find the bin has been raided and there is rubbish all over your kitchen…. the little git knows that he did something wrong because he is cowering and looking away!
Or so it would seem but that’s actually not what is happening here…..
Dogs don’t associate delayed punishment (punishment for something he did hours ago) with the actual ‘punishable’ act. A dog will only connect what happened immediately before he was punished. And what happened immediately before he was punished in the past? The owner had come home. That’s why the dog cowers. The owner returning home has, in the past, resulted in shouting and a slap on the nose. The dog is now wary when you enter the home as he’s not sure which version of you is going to greet him.
If your dog is destructive you need to make sure he has no access to items he can destroy until you have trained him what he can and cannot chew. Dogs have no concept of monetary or sentimental value and they do not learn what you are trying to teach them with delayed punishment.
“I use an eCollar on him in the garden when he goes near the fence to stop him from jumping over it. I don’t like doing it but it’s for his own safety. The alternative is that he gets out and gets hit by a car”
Realistically, should you really have a dog in a garden which is not secure and not fit for purpose? You might need to raise your fence or, much more cost effective, put a few feet of mesh at the top of it so that your dog can’t scale it. The garden is going to be part of his home for approx. 15 years, it should be a safe place. I can’t see any justification for taking a dog into a home which is not compatible with dog ownership and then physically punishing the dog for it rather than simply making the adjustments necessary to create a safe home for the dog.
This is more of an issue in the US where eCollars are much more prevalent.
“I read that the best way to make them stop jumping up is a good knee in the chest when they do it. I don’t like the idea but I can’t see any way around it. If I try to take his paws and remove him he thinks I’m playing and that just encourages the behaviour”
This idea is so prevalent that people don’t bat an eyelid when they hear it suggested but think about it…. Your buddy, your big, playful, innocent-to-a-fault buddy is so delighted to see you that they just can’t contain it. Has any human, in your entire life, been so happy to see you as your dog is when you return to the house after a 10 minute absence? And how do we repay that pure joy? By a good, sharp knee in their ribs? Does the thought of that not just break your heart a little bit?
This is when we call for our ‘Functional Analysis’. In plain English what this means is that we ask ourselves “what is the function of this behaviour / what does the dog get out of it?” Behaviour doesn’t just happen for no reason – always remember that when trying to figure out why a dog does something.
In the case of jumping up the goal is usually to greet you, to get a pet, to make physical contact and get facial proximity. If you no longer provide those things when the dog jumps up, then the behaviour will, over time, die out. Instead, teach your dog a good, solid ‘sit’. Ask him for that behaviour instead of the undesired behaviour and greet him and pat him when he is sitting. He will soon learn that the only way he gets lots of attention and physical contact when you return home is when all four paws are on the ground.
Smack on the nose with a newspaper as Toilet Training
“If I don’t punish him – how will he know not to do it?”
This was once the standard go-to practice for toilet training a puppy. I’m sure most people reading this have done it at some stage or, for the younger readers, perhaps your parents did. Thankfully this practice is dying out.
Puppies, like babies, have absolutely no concept that there are places which you should and places you should not empty yourself. They simply don’t understand that emptying yourself where you stand, as soon as the urge occurs, is not the done thing.
So, keeping that in mind, if you punish a puppy for emptying themselves in the house, you might think that they automatically understand that the location was the reason they were punished. However, quite often they simply learn that it is unsafe to empty themselves when their owner is nearby. So you get a puppy who learns to hide under the kitchen table or wait until the owner leaves the room.
I won’t go into an extensive toilet training how-to here but the short and narrow of it is:
Bring your pup outside often so they don’t get an opportunity to have accidents in the house.
Stay out there with him (in rain, snow or sun) wait until he goes, give a reward for going outside (keep a jar of treats at the ready near the back door).
Interrupt the dog if you catch him going in the house by (gently) lifting him up and taking him outside to finish.
Use a crate for periods when they will be alone. Dogs don’t like to soil where they sleep and this will encourage them to hold it in. However, you will need to keep absences rather short for the first few weeks (including setting an alarm and waking up a few times a night to let them out - it will be worth it in the end!).
If you find your pup has toileted in the house but you weren’t there at the time then simply clean it up and think about how you can best avoid the pup being left for too long without toilet breaks going forward. (Remember my caution above about delayed punishment).
There is always a better way than using aversive punishment and making your dog wary of you. If you have any more examples in which you can’t think of an alternative to punishment – comment below or drop me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org