In honor of National Train Your Dog Month this January, I thought I’d tackle a topic that I’m asked about by almost every client–Is it okay to punish your dog? Well, that depends on your definition of “punish.” In our punitive, hierarchical society, punishment is doled out carelessly all the time. It feeds our need to dominate other groups of people and makes us feel more powerful and more in control. Sadly, people don’t realize how detrimental punishment, when used incorrectly, can be to a person or animal.
Many years ago, and even still today with some dog trainers, trainers taught people to dominate their dogs and break their will in order to have successful relationships with their pets. Harsh methods of training, such as lifting your dog up off the ground by their collar, alpha rolls (pinning your dog to the ground until they submit), aggressive leash pops, yelling, hitting, shoving a dog’s face in their feces … these were all part of the training techniques owners were taught by well-meaning, yet totally uninformed trainers. Punishment through force and fear was used all the time. Sadly, few dog owners questioned these tactics as it feeds into a human’s need to be the at the top of the food chain.
Thankfully, research started telling us that these training techniques weren’t appropriate or even necessary. A dog could be trained in the same amount of time through something called positive reinforcement training. Imagine a small child in class who gives the correct answer to a question–they get a gold star and swell with pride. And if they give the wrong answer, they aren’t smacked or made fun of, they’re given another chance. In the canine world, we call this setting your dog up for success. When they’re learning, make it as easy as possible for them to choose the right behavior. And if they don’t, try again or ask for something a little easier then build back up again. So no hitting, yelling, leash pops; just praise and reward. Let me say that again, praise and reward. When your dog gets something right and earns himself a hunk of cheese, you will see the happiest dog in the world.
But what about punishment? Does positive reinforcement training mean we can never punish our dog? No. Some positive only trainers will tell you that punishment will look a lot different. So when you’re playing with your puppy and she starts nipping, you don’t hit her or yell at her, you remove yourself from the situation and deprive her of anymore play time until she settles down. When your dog starts jumping on you when you get home from work, you ignore her until she stops. She doesn’t get your attention until she sits. When she pulls you down the street on her leash, you plant your feet like a tree and prevent her from getting to what she wants to get to until she stops pulling. See how much different this form of punishment is than from what I described in the beginning?
Having said that, I see no problem in teaching a dog the word “no.” Some positive only trainers will disagree with me, but a stern “no” when the dog is nipping painfully, or jumping up and overpowering you, or about to knock you down is not based on wanting to frighten the dog; it’s based on common sense. You can still turn away from the dog or refuse your attention, but I would pair it with a negative verbal marker, such as “no.” Nobody gets hurt. You don’t have to act like a monster to train your dog. And your dog is still learning. But most importantly, everyone can have fun with training.