“It’s not that punishment doesn’t work to get rid of behaviours, it’s that the risks associated with it are so great, it really is best avoided if at all possible.” Jenny Adams, excerpt from The Big Brain Bit


Known in the trade as Positive Punishment (P+)

So, what’s the risks? 

Here’s some, there may be more:

  1. Dog might not find whatever you’re using punishing.
  2. Dog might generalise the punishment in unforseen and even dangerous directions.
  3. Issues can be made worse if the behaviour is caused by something which responds poorly to punishment.
  4. Bad timing can end up punishing the wrong thing.
  5. Dog might generalise the punisher in unforseen or even dangerous ways.
  6. Can break relationship between owner and dog.

1. Dog might not find whatever you’re using punishing.

If you go look for the definitions, you’ll see that punishment isn’t simply something we consider may punish our subject, they’re something which actually does reduce the chance a particular behaviour will recur. So, what’s punishing to one, may not be punishing to another. If you squirt Betsy the Jack Russell with water, she may avoid whatever led to that squirting in the future. If you squirt Bertie the Labrador, he may have a party under the hose pipe and actively seek out whatever led to his dousing.
Bertie probably also enjoys:

Being pushed to the floor (we’re trying to stop him jumping up at us)
The taste of Bitter Apple/Tabasco Sauce on the furniture (yummy!)
Being smacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper (new toy!)

Pipe Reward Punishment

Reward or punishment?

3. Issues can be made worse. Eg:

Dog barks at other dogs because he’s afraid of them. We punish that behaviour. Dog becomes more afraid of other dogs.
Dog is worried about being left on his own (separation anxiety). We punish the resulting barking/inappropriate toileting/destructiveness. Anxiety increases and so do its symptom behaviours.

5. Dog might generalise the punisher in unforseen or even dangerous ways.

Hitting dogs.

No better way to teach a dog to bite someone who reaches forward to pat or stroke your dog. Don’t hit them! Even better, get them to associate fast-moving-hands-near-to-dog’s-head mean good things are coming.


No Punishment at all then, Jen?

I didn’t say that. Just be pretty darned careful with it.


Probably the least likely punishment to cause long-lasting, unintended consequences.

Oh, and choose your battles.  I’m not talking timing him out for training errors here, I’m talking about timing him out for behaviours which are on my list of, “I just can’t put up with that kind of behaviour from you, Mister.” 

Oh, and another thing, the better trainer I’ve become over the years, the less punishment of any kind I’ve used. I think this tells me that problem behaviour in dogs has much more to do with the human than it does the dog.




Positive Punishment (P+)
Thanks to Karen Pryor and her team.

PUBLIC VERSION. Public versions of student questions are summmarised, mostly for confidentiality reasons.

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