Teaching owners to administer punishment may expose the instructor to liability issues because of the inherent, and well documented, risks associated with using aversive stimuli. It is particularly fraught with danger when dealing with dogs that have behaviour problems, particularly those that suffer from fear or aggression issues.

By definition, a stimulus will be either reinforcing, neutral, or aversive. If it is reinforcing, it will encourage the learner to repeat/increase the behaviour. If it is aversive, it will be something that the learner seeks to avoid and if the learner is making the correct association between the behaviour and the stimulus, the frequency/strength of the behaviour will be reduced in future. If it is neutral, there will of course be no effect either way.  Consequently, if used correctly and effectively, punishment can affect behaviour, but it does carry with it the risks that have been outlined above.

Ineffective punishment, it may well be argued, constitutes nothing short of abuse. Because the behaviour will be unaffected, the learner is set up for another repetition of the punishment without having the information necessary to change his behaviour in order to avoid it. Instead, before inflicting punishment on a learner, the trainer must be certain that the application of the punishment will be effective, and that the benefits of the application of punishment will be outweighed by the risks associated with it.

From an ethical perspective, each individual animal owner and trainer must also ask themselves whether the administration of effective punishment is beneficial to the relationship with their animal.

For the general pet population, there are very few, if any, reasons to ever resort to aversives / punishment. For the professional trainer, aversives/punishment carries with it the very undesirable effect of reducing learner motivation, reliability, trust and quality of the relationship. Positive reinforcement training, on the other hand, is benign in the hands of the general public, while in the hands of a well educated trainer, it can be an extremely sophisticated tool for creating advanced behaviours with a very high level of reliability.

Problems with Punishment

Punishment, or correction, whether severe or mild, has been found to bring with it some rather undesirable consequences, such as:

  • inhibition of learning;
  • increased fear-related behaviours;
  • aggression;
  • injury (to animals or people)(7)

When a learner (human or animal) is exposed to the scenario of:

  • either being able to earn a reward for correct performance; or
  • incur punishment for incorrect performance,

many, if not most, individuals will avoid responding at all, in order to avoid the risk of punishment.That is, unless they are absolutely certain of the correct response. The reasons are:(8)

It’s an Incomplete Programme

Aversives only address what NOT to do. You might be lucky. Your learner might stop the punished behaviour due to distraction, but then what? It’s not nice to mug visitors, but is your dog clear on what behaviour is expected instead?

Aversives Can Escalate Fearful Behaviours

Your dog is afraid of men with beards, and barks at them when she sees them to try to get them to go away. She lunges and barks at him, and you holler and jerk the leash. Now, she has to worry about both the bearded man and about you. Perhaps she thinks that you are also reacting to him, or perhaps she simply perceives that you become unpredictable or unpleasant when there are bearded men around, and so she fears them even more.

The Aversive May be Perceived as a Reward

Your dog is barking in the back yard, and you open the window and shout “Be Quiet!!”. Your dog might think that barking made you come out. She’s lonely, so she barks again, to make you come back.

Aversives Can Damage Your Relationship

Punishment can cause confusion and reduce the trust that is so important between the trainer and the animal. To earn your learner’s respect, it is best to be using consistent guidance and positive training, not intimidation or force.

To be Effective, Punishment Needs to be Immediate

For any chance of the appropriate association to be learned, punishment should occur within about two seconds of the behaviour. Can you guarantee that the association will be correct in the learner’s mind?

Using an Aversive Might or Might Not Generalize

You say “heel” but your dog strains ahead. You jerk the leash. What is the point? No pulling? No pulling on this block? No pulling on sidewalks, but okay to pull on paths? Or is it not to do with pulling at all, but about looking at the tree, or sniffing at a bush? We don’t know if dogs learn what we are trying to teach.

Punishment Only Suppresses Behaviour

Owners hope that punishment will stop a behaviour. There is evidence to suggest that adding an aversive after an unwanted behaviour may only ‘stun’ the behaviour temporarily, if it works at all.

Will Your Dog Make the Right Association?

If you shout at your dog for chasing a cat, will he think he shouldn’t chase the cat? Or, that you’re angry because he didn’t catch it? A child was nearby when you hollered at the dog – will the dog now link your punishment with his anxiety to children?

Aversives Can Lead to Learned Helplessness-Syndrome.

No matter what your animal does, it’s wrong. So, it’s safer to do nothing. The animal gives up, shuts down, and just endures the punishment. Some trainers may consider this a success. The undesirable behaviour stopped. But, is it permanent? Or, is it still brewing under the surface?

The Generation of a Substitute Behaviour

Repetitive actions, such as barking, digging and chewing can calm a dog, much like rocking a baby, has a calming effect. It feels good. If your dog is getting a ‘barker’s high’, and if you simply stop the barking without teaching the dog what to do instead, he might turn to a substitute behaviour for gratification, like perhaps tail chasing.

The Punishment Callus

Learning science suggest that a punishment should be aversive and intense enough to stop the behaviour right away. If it is not effective, the tendency is for people to escalate the strength of successive punishments. The resulting ‘callus’ you have built now requires you to administer a harsher punishment than would have been necessary before you desensitized your dog.

Can the Owner do it?

Few owners have the skill or desire to deliver an effective punishment. Reward-based methods are more ‘forgiving’. If your timing is off with positive reinforcement, the result is only an extra pat or treat for your dog.

Your Learner Might Think that the Aversive is Contingent on Your Presence

Your animal should perceive the aversive as a direct result of his behaviour. The consequence should seem to come from the environment. If instead the consequence is linked to you, your animal might risk engaging in bad behaviour when he knows that you are not around to see it.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

Where do you draw the line between the use of aversive techniques in the name of training? and abuse?

Does the Use of an Aversive Make YOU Feel Better?

The goal of your training techniques should be to change your dog’s behaviour. It should not be a means to vent your own frustration. The two issues should be dealt with separately.

Saying “No” to Your Dog

The problem with saying “no”, even after the animal has learned that it means “stop what you are doing”, is that there is a tendency for overuse, which decreases its effectiveness. Ken Ramirez says in his book “Animal Training” that

“Psychologists often recommend that parents say no to their children less frequently and suggest that they instead offer alternatives to an unwanted behavior. However, once the word ‘no’ has been added to the vocabulary, it flows from a parent’s mouth all too easily. I frequently discourage young trainers from ever conditioning a ‘no’ signal, because if there is not a signal for ‘no’ it cannot be overused. However I have seen skilled trainers use the ‘no’ or ‘wrong’ signal very effectively. As with any tool, if properly understood and used, it can be worth keeping in the toolbox.”(9)

In addition to limited use, a ‘no’ signal should be trained with a minimum of aversive. Even so, it is likely to contribute to a ‘poisoned cue’, which in turn will affect reliability of performance, so it needs to be used very carefully and away from any association with behaviours that we want to build into a behaviour chain.

All foot note references can be found by number in the Definitions page.