Use of physical punishment in training – why it works and the harm it can do (part 1)

Before I start this post, I want to preface it by saying I am now a 100% non aversive trainer and have been for some years now. I can’t remember the last time I shouted at a dog other than my own (which was a long time before I knew any better) and don’t even say “No” any more, rather I may repeat the cue to give the dog another opportunity to respond.

If any of you have read my first post, you will know that I came from a background of traditional dog training. I took my young Dogue de Bordeaux to a sports dog club, where the use of choke chains and prong collars was common place and shock collars were sometimes seen.

The reason I used metal collars was because

1. I wasn’t shown anything different and

2. I was getting results.

My dog Bosco was a terrible puller on the lead and I taught him, in the space of about 5 minutes, to walk to heal using a prong collar. I also taught a great down stay, sit stay and recall, all using a prong collar. Prong collars work, that’s why I used them and that’s why people continue to use them. Now I wasn’t a barbarian who enjoyed hurting my dog. I loved my boy and wanted what was best for him which was to mind his manners and do as I asked of him, I just went about it the wrong way. In my experience this is generally true of most dog trainers (always exceptions of course).

Prong collars work by, according to the operant model, positive punishment. The positive part is a plus sign(+) where something is added to punish (reduce) the undesired behaviour. So in the instance above with Bosco, pulling on the lead, getting up from a stay and not coming back were all punished/reduced by me adding a correction (i.e. painful experience) with the prong collar. The father of operant training, B.F. Skinner did this in a lab using rats. Rats were put in a box where, upon pressing one lever they obtained a food pellet and on pressing another one got an electric shock. It doesn’t take too long before the rat learns which button to press and which to avoid.

As progressive/non-aversive trainers, we need to understand why other “balanced” trainers do what they do. I recently had a discussion on a web training forum on this issue. The other person argued that using force in training doesn’t work. She argued that I hadn’t trained a down stay from Bosco, merely taught him not to get up, that I hadn’t trained heeling, merely punished him for pulling on the lead. My response to this is, really what is the difference? The picture looks that same, Bosco stays down and walks on a loose leash.

I think arguing against the effectiveness of forceful training is futile. What we should be doing is educating about the fallout or effect it has on our relationship with our dogs. I am currently making my way through Steve White’s DVD set, “How Police K9 techniques can transform your everyday training”. Steve is a progressive trainer who has trained police dogs forever. In the seminar, he states that when punishment is being used (he’s not condoning it), the dog should not associate the punishment with the handler. This is because it breaks down the bond of trust between handler and dog. The dog is less likely to trust someone who hurts it, which is hugely problematic when your dog is your police partner. The breakdown of handler/dog relationship is the best which happens. The worst that can happen is that you end up with a dog who is frightened and/or aggressive to the environment.

For instance, I taught Bosco to be super reactive to other dogs. I did this really well. He pulled because he wanted to say hello to other dogs and people he met. The harder he pulled, the more I corrected him. The more I corrected him the more he associated other dogs in the environment with pain and the more reactive he became as he learned that the pain stops when the dog goes away. What could have happened because he knew it was me who was hurting him, would have been to turn around and attack me. That would be among the worst things which could have happened.

By understanding why traditional trainers do what they do, knowing our own craft inside out so that we can produce better results and be able to demonstrate that our dogs are working for us because they want to and not because they fear not doing it, rather than dismissing these techniques as ineffective then hopefully we can continue to change things.

Part 2 –

Bosco without his prong collar, working for the ball and much happier for it
Bosco without his prong collar, working for the ball and much happier for it

12 thoughts on “Use of physical punishment in training – why it works and the harm it can do (part 1)

  1. Hello 🙂 Just found the link to this post at , nice post (it seems that the post on the forum disappeared thought).

    I’m just an average owner and I’ve been with an old school trainer (the type that focuses more on corrections using choke collars and prongs), but now I’m going to meet with a positive methods trainer. So you can say that I have experience with the coke collar and the prong and know that it can be efficient and not necessarily torture tools (as long as not used in harsh manners).

    One thing I’ve learned is that one thing is to defend the effectiveness of a tool/method, and another is defending which methods are better. But many people, when convincing others that positive methods are more preferable, deny the effectiveness of these tools. I can say that I prefer better alternatives any day, but I get misunderstood from time to time when I say that these tools can be effective when used properly.

    IMO, to truly start to convince people of why alternate/positive methods are better, we can’t just deny the effectiveness of other methods just coz we don’t like it or agree with it. We have to, just like your post, acknowledge these tools for what they are, and then talk about their pitfalls and then why other methods are better.

  2. Reblogged this on #knoxdog and commented:
    “I think arguing against the effectiveness of forceful training is futile. What we should be doing is educating about the fallout or effect it has on our relationship with our dogs.”

    Absolutely true. We dedicate ourselves to a “method” because we want the best for our animals. But we should continue to move forward to find the BEST way forward, rather than just “whatever works.”

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