The Fallouts of Punishment

In the US and many other countries dog training is an unregulated industry: there are no laws in place regulating who can and cannot claim to be a professional or expert. So even if you seek out “trainer” support, you may - like many unfortunate guardians before you - be given inappropriate advice regarding the use of punishment in behavior modification. This blog outlines some of the fallouts and shortcomings of using positive punishments when training dogs.


Positive punishment refers to the addition of an aversive to decrease the likelihood a behavior will happen again. Some examples of positive punishment include but are not limited to 

  • leash jerks 
  • shouting or scolding a dog 
  • holding the dog's mouth shut 
  • alpha rolling 
  • hitting, pushing or kicking a dog 
  • intimidation or physical coercion 
  • spray bottles 
  • bark collars
  • shaking pennies in a can (aversive noise) 
  • prong collars 
  • choke chains 
  • e-collars 
  • citronella collars 




1. Punishments must be timed perfectly 

  • In order for the animal to understand what it is doing wrong, the punishment must be timed to occur while the behavior is occurring, or within 1 second
  • This is almost impossible for most guardians to achieve consistently


2. Error can easily strengthen undesirable behavior

  • In order for punishment to affect a lasting change, it should occur every time the undesirable behavior occurs 
  • If the animal is not punished every time, then the behavior is being intermittently reinforced
  • Intermittent reinforcement is actually one of the fastest ways to strengthen a behavior 
  • Therefore most guardians are, inadvertently, training in the behaviors they are attempting to punish


3. The intensity of the punishment must be just right

  • For punishment to be effective, it must be exactly strong enough the first time to reduce the undesirable behavior
  • If the intensity is not high enough, and the punishment is re-applied - the animal may habituate to that intensity of punishment: meaning it no longer works 
  • This often creates a pattern of escalating aggression, force, and intimidation



"This often creates a pattern of escalating aggression, force,

and intimidation that greatly damages the interspecies bond

and degrades trust" 



4. Repeated punishments may cause physical harm

  • Choke chains can damage the trachea, especially in the many dogs with already collapsing tracheas or hypoplastic tracheas
  • Some dogs, especially brachycephalic breeds, have developed sudden and life-threatening pulmonary edema, possibly due to the sudden upper airway obstruction leading to a rapid swing in intra-thoracic pressure and dogs prone to glaucoma may be more susceptible to the disorder since pressure by collars around the neck can increase intra-ocular pressure

5. Punishment Can Generalize 

  • Some punishments may not cause physical harm and may not seem severe, but they can cause the animal to become fearful, and this fear may generalize to other contexts
  • For instance, some dogs on which the citronella or electronic collar are used with a preceding tone may react fearfully to alarm clocks, smoke detectors, or egg timers


6. Punishment Suppresses Behaviors 

  • Otherwise referred to as ‘learned helplessness’
  • For instance, if the animal behaves aggressively due to fear, the use of force to stop the fearful reactions will make the animal more fearful, while at the same time suppressing or masking the outward signs of fear; (e.g. a threat display/ growling) 
  • As a result, if the animal faces a situation where it is extremely fearful (of both the original trigger, AND the impending punishment), it may suddenly act with heightened aggression and with fewer warning signs 
  • In other words, the dog may now behave more aggressively and with less warning: making it much more dangerous 



"The dog may now behave more aggressively with less warning:

making it much more dangerous"  



7. Punishment doesn’t teach an alternative behavior

  • One of the most important problems with punishment is that it does not address the underlying reason that the undesirable behavior is occurring
  • Most undesirable behaviors are emotionally underpinned, and simply punishing the expression of frustration, fear, and excitement doesn’t teach the dog how you want them to behave, it just teaches them that their natural reactions will be punished
  • A more appropriate approach to solving the problem is to focus on reinforcing a more appropriate behavior
  • Guardians should determine how the undesirable behavior is being reinforced and remove access to that reinforcement through management 
  • They can then reinforce alternate, appropriate, behaviors, slowly fading the management when the dog is aware exactly of what you want
  • This leads to a better understanding of why animals behave as they do and leads to a 






    with the animal



The American Society of Veterinary Behavior Position, Statement on Punishment 


“The standard of care for veterinarians specializing in behavior is that punishment is not to be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems [...] Additionally punishment should only be used when animal owners are made aware of the possible adverse effects. The AVSAB recommends that owners working with trainers who use punishment as a form of behavior modification in animals choose only those trainers who, without prompting...


1) Can and do articulate the most serious adverse effects associated with punishment

2) Are capable of judging when these adverse effects are occurring over the short and/or long term

3) Can explain how they would attempt to reverse any adverse effects if or when they occur

The Argument Formalized 


Premise 1:

Any qualified trainer (e.g. someone who is  ‘good enough’ to use punishment effectively and ethically) is prima facie aware and vocal about the fallouts of punishment outlined above 


Premise 2:

Any trainer who is aware of the fallouts of punishment outlined above would never recommend the use of harsh, punitive methods (e.g. that use fear, pain, and intimidation) to a layperson as a valid behavior modification method 



Any qualified trainer would never recommend the use of harsh punitive punishment (e.g. that uses fear, pain, and intimidation) to a layperson as a behavior modification method

Resources and Further Reading:

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