Physical punishment – why we shouldn’t use it in training (part 2)

I recently blogged on using physical punishment on dog training, why people use it and some of the consequences using it can have. While the vast majority of feedback on the article was very positive, there were a few comments which made me think that some of the points needed clarification. The link to the original blog is here

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the learning as


  • 1gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught
  • commit to memory
  • become aware of (something) by information or from observation

And Teaching as


  • 1 [with object and infinitive or clause] impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something
  • [with object] give information about or instruction in (a subject or skill)
  • [no object] work as a teacher
  •  [with object and clause] cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience
  • [with object] encourage someone to accept (something) as a fact or principle:the philosophy teaches self-control
  • informal make (someone) less inclined to do something

Now, the point of defining learning and teaching (or in this case as the term applies, training) is so that we don’t get bogged down in the semantics. In cases like this people from either camp (either force free or traditional dog training) can get a little hot and bothered by this highly emotive subject. Again, just to reiterate, I am a 100% force free trainer and behaviour consultant. I use no physical corrections and no sound aversive training tools such as rattle cans.

In the first article, I stated that physically punitive training can produce some results. One of the arguments I encountered was that this type of training merely suppresses others and that it is not actual training, learning or teaching. The flip side of this argument is that reward based training only encourages and animal to do what we are trying to reinforce. As you can see, when compared against the opposite side of the argument, it begins fall apart. Rats in a Skinner box (, for definition) learn not to press the button which gives them a shock. They learn this by avoidance, but they do learn not to do it. As applied to dog training, dogs taught not to pull on leash using a prong collar or choke chain learn not to pull. The behaviour is not merely suppressed. If the consequence of pulling it a painful stimulus in the neck, they learn to avoid the pain, hence not pull and learn to walk on a loose leash as this does not cause them pain (again, I’m in no way advocating this as a training method). Animals can learn by avoiding pain, but not exclusively.

The other argument I encountered is that physically punitive training doesn’t work. Given the above, I’m going to offer an explanation as to why some reward based trainers think this way. Many modern dog trainers have a background in purely reward based training. Since they have never used traditional methods, and many have never even witnessed this type of training, the knowledge of some of them can be based on third hand accounts. I absolutely do not mean to be disparaging of reward based trainers who have not used traditional methods here. They are extremely lucky to have been able to come into the training world and learned from enough enlightened trainers that they have never had to use force, and if I could start again, it would be my preference also. But as trainers, we owe it to our dogs, our clients and our profession to fully understand these training techniques and not dismiss them outright. There is a huge difference between understanding why something works and advocating it’s use. We should be able to have a well reasoned, logical discussion about this issue without it becoming emotional.

I think another reason some force free trainers say it doesn’t work is because of the blurred lines between training and behaviour modification. Training is generally to teach dogs how to do something, for instance a recall or closing a door. Behaviour modification, for example changing aggression, involves removal of the inappropriate behaviour and addressing the emotional state behind it. In this instance, I would absolutely agree that harsh, painful techniques do not work, are counter productive and can make the behaviour worse. Correcting a fearful dog on a metal collar or shocking a dog with separation anxiety will do nothing to make the dog feel better about what is distressing them and will often lead to an association between the frightening stimulus and being hurt. This in turn can lead to breakdown in dog/owner bond, redirected aggression where the dog attacks the handler, or learned helplessness, among others, where the dog stops doing anything at all because all his tools for trying to cope with the stressful situation lead to him being hurt.

I do truly feel that all trainers need to understand the differences between techniques and training methods and philosophies and why people use them. If we are to have an impact in our field of work, inclusion is better that exclusion so that we can use our knowledge to influence other trainers and owners who still use these outdated training methods.

2 thoughts on “Physical punishment – why we shouldn’t use it in training (part 2)

  1. Yes it does work, there is no doubt about that. But if a trainer insists on these methods knowing that there are humane alternatives that also work, then it’s a moral and ethical issue. Education of dog owners in all methods available empowers people to make the humane decision. Regulation of ‘professionals’ is a step in the right direction of course. People could then avoid these trainers more easily perhaps? However, I like Sophia Yin’s philosophy. She does not rule out any methods, no matter how aversive, if it means she can save a dog’s life. However, in her experience, she finds positive reinforcement and negative punishment to be effective in 99% of cases, rendering positive punishment almost obsolete and for extremely rare cases.

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