Death before discomfort?

Death before discomfort is a term used by some in the dog training / behaviour world and I wanted to talk about it and what it means, what people think it means and why I think the term exists.

Amongst dog trainers and behaviourists there are some that support the use of all four quadrants of the operant conditioning principles and some that only support the positive reinforcement quadrant.

Those that only support Positive Reinforcement often despise the Positive Punishment, Negative Reinforcement elements, labelling them cruel, barbaric, archaic and unnecessary.

In my understanding, some time ago those who don’t support all four quadrants, argued that when a dogs behaviour was unacceptable, dangerous etc that euthanising the dog would be “kinder” than putting it through harsh, painful rehabilitation.

Is that true? Would it be kinder to kill a dog rather than put it through a lot of pain and suffering? Maybe so, I guess each case would need to be judged on its own merits and circumstances.

BUT, the problem is that some modern trainers who use all four quadrants could apply strategies with very low levels of aversive (discomfort not pain) and successfully modify behaviours where other restricted programs were not providing success.

So the term Death Before Discomfort was born because whilst Death before incredible pain may be quite reasonable, I find it hard to accept that it would be kinder to kill a dog rather than apply a very mild aversive (discomfort).


Whilst being kind means “a good or benevolent person“, does that mean that: –

It is kind to kill a dog that could live a full or moderately full life because the dog displays an unacceptable behaviour and does not respond to a person’s chosen or accepted rehabilitation ideals?

It is kind to suggest to a person that their dog needs to be euthanized as he or she is not responding well to a limited, albeit normally effective training ideology?

Is that kind?


I remember many years ago listening to debates between people who agreed with and were against euthanising people, called Mercy Killing when I was younger, I understood that if the person had an incurable disease, and were suffering untreatable pain, then it would be merciful to end their life or let them end it to escape an awful, unescapable life of pain and suffering.

In Australia, Euthanasia for people is illegal, as it has questionable ethics and there is concern that this right / option could be abused.

When it comes to dogs though, Euthanasia is legal in all states of Australia, but it is not limited to dogs in unescapable pain, or incurable illness; you can walk into any vet and ask for your dog to be Euthanised and it is not illegal, nor do you need a good reason.

So, now we have people who believe that all dogs can be trained through reward only systems and for those that can’t, it might be “kinder” to euthanise them.

Would / should you be willing to subject your dog to pain to train it?

This is often the perception but not the reality. Many dogs that fail to respond to Positive Reinforcement perform extremely well when very small amounts of Positive Punishment / Negative Reinforcement are applied.

So often when discussing this with people I find them using words such as pain, fear, suffering and abuse, when in fact, well at least in my training, none of this is happening at all.

Some have become so desperate to avoid using any minor aversive, they use medication, sedation, lifelong management, lifelong freedom restrictions and euthanasia instead.

Death before discomfort

Death before discomfort

The Real Long Term Suffering

Imagine being a dog that will be managed 100% of the time in a backyard or on a tight leash, with no opportunity ever, both now and in his or her future to run, explore, roll in the mud, swim in the ocean or just be a dog…

The video below shows my Malinois Venom enjoying freedom on the beach…

And in many situations these restrictions are required because the dog was never educated and socialised correctly when young, therefore no fault of their own…

What level of discomfort is realistic?

In a very high percentage of dogs I work with, all that is ever used is a very, VERY small level of aversive and the aim of this aversive is help the dog find a better behaviour that we have previously taught.

We have a purpose built indoor training room that is insulated from outside weather, outside noise, outside visual distractions and concerns and we use this room to teach the dog how to respond to minimal aversive under zero distraction.

Once the elements of the exercise have been taught and the dog has developed some impulse control and can make better choices, distractions are applied to the situation at a level that just challenges the dogs thoughts and the dog is helped make the correct choice.

Repeated these dogs learn to regulate their emotions and are given more freedom of choice as they have proven they can make good choices.

Dogs are not exposed to repeated torture, painful experiences and traumatic situations, but if they were, I might believe in the “Death before torturous training” too.

But Death before (minor) Discomfort? I suggest you take a realistic rethink if you’re ok with this.

Stress, anxiety and the whole box of things to avoid

People will watch a dog working and make comment they saw the dog lick its lips, yawn or some other sign of stress and think this is to be avoided, but I see dogs offer these signals for many different reasons, and whilst some of them are stress related, often I see these signals being thrown when the dog cannot access a food reward too.

Stress is part of life, good stress improves performance, memory and focus. Bad stress can be harmful and have a larger impact on the dog than ideal.

Example of bad stress

Dog see’s another dog across the road and wants to run over and play. Owner holds the dog back by the harness and offers food treat.

Dog in a frustrated manner ignores food treat and tries desperately to get to the other dog, jumping, yelping and spinning on leash until the other dog is out of view.

The dog cannot find any way to ignore the dog within its known behaviours and lacks any ability to regulate him or herself, he or she also cannot get to the dog and this same event may be played out a number of times each walk which can be stressful for the dog and owner, other dog and owner too.

The dog does not have the ability to offer a better behaviour at this level of emotional frustration, so it is trapped in a system that has no win.

You can’t win, you have no choice…

People come to me trapped in a situation that includes the following elements: –

  • The dog has a servere behaviour problem
  • The owner has sought help and the dog is non respondant to positive reinforcement only strategies
  • The dog has been subjected to many hours of training with no appreciable difference in the behaviour problem
  • Medication has been prescribed and dosage tweaked and the behaviour problem remains unchanged
  • The owner is feeling desperate to avoid having to suffer this behaviour problem any longer and asks for a suggestion

Given that a strategy has been applied with no success, medication has not helped and many months and or years have passed and the problem remains the same or worse, Euthanasia may start looking like an option as NOTHING works.

The fact is that none of those strategies have worked,  that does not mean that NOTHING will.

But often when people come to me they have been pre warned that Death is better than Discomfort and believe no matter what they do their dog will become worse, because punishment is so terrible.

Always remember that when a person is put to death for their crimes this is called Capital Punishment, and it seems that many people who are not a fan of any punishment don’t mind Capital Punishment.

Euthanasia solves problem dogs?

In my many years of workiong with people and their dogs, I have met so many that are still grief stricken over the dog they euthanised many years ago. Euthanising your dog will stop the dog displaying the behaviour problem, that is true, but a new, unsolvable problem may develop, the guilt and grief that comes from doing it.

Start using four quadrants and your problems will be over!

Not at all, in fact you will need to still learn how to use rewards, timing, management and how to add and remove pressure, it won’t be easy but in my experience it will work.

No one is suggesting you be mean or angry at your dogs, hurt them or get revenge or use any method or training aid in a manner that will frighten, intimidate or shut your dog down, well I am not anyway.

When people come to train with us they have the opportunity to learn about how and why their dog does what he or she does and if we recommend a protocol that uses pressure to change your dogs behaviour, you are consulted all the way and you will see a dog that works happily and without concern.

We will not: –

  • Do anything to your dog that you don’t understand or want
  • Hurt your dog or make your dog feel frightened based on our actions
  • Aim to shut your dog down or force submission

AND we will NEVER spend your valuable time telling you to avoid trainers that don’t do things our way, because this is the “tell tale” sign you are usually working with someone who struggles to get results so they need to start fighting your urge now to try someone else right away.

My trainers and I are simply focussed on helping you and your dog behave better, giving you strategies, tools, knowledge, skill and support and we will be thrilled when you get to where you want to be, NO MATTER HOW YOU DO IT.

As always please share and comment, we welcome your input.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. Excellent article, as usual, Steve!

    I read every post you publish; and actually I’m pretty sure I’ve read every post you have written on this blog. 😉 ?Only once have I found myself questioning one paragraph you wrote recently. Simply wondering why you might have interpreted it a such (it was about L.I.M.A. – I still find this a useful framework when it comes to developing behaviour modification plans. Would love the chance to have a chat with you to hear more of your thoughts on this.)

    Even though I refer to myself as a rewards-based trainer, this does not mean I refuse to use an aversive or positive punishment. I will certainly introduce an aversive, when it would greatly benefit my client and their dog. In fact, I use all four quadrants of operant conditioning, and I honestly don’t see how you can only ever use two.
    And, as I’m sure you know, classical conditioning always comes along for the ride – the emotional side of things – so I choose to also incorporate social referencing and sensory processing exercises, to support counter-conditioning and progressive desensitisation protocols, when developing behaviour modification programs.

    The key to success with any behaviour modification program – regardless of the type of problem – is, as you indicated: clear choices for the dog… and the owners!
    My preference will always be to refer reactivity and aggression cases to a more experienced trainer, who can provide a board and train solution, such as yourself. Not having access to a purpose built facility to recondition these dogs in a controlled environment is certainly not ideal, as it slows down progress and requires the owners to do more of the heavy lifting. However, sometimes the available options for the client are limited.
    As a result, I’ve developed what I call a ”de-escalation sequence” for dogs who tend to over-react to innocuous things in their environment (whether it be fear or frustration), for whenever I have to take on such a case. ?A de-escalation protocol provides the dog with clear, pre-determined choice points, and ample opportunity to be rewarded for making a better choice. And importantly, it also offers the owners a simple management strategy to help their dog regain its composure, if the dog does go over-threshold. More often than not though, at this stage in the program, the dog is able to disengage somewhere along the sequence, before the aversive needs to be applied. And gradually, over time, there is no need to even initiate the de-escalation sequence, as the dog is now able to ignore a former trigger (it’s neither a threat, nor an opportunity – it’s irrelevant).
    When I initially install this de-escalation sequence, I have never had to apply the aversive more than twice for a specific trigger, before the dog gets it, and is crystal clear on the choices it now has when faced with this challenging situation.
    Yes, only twice will the dog be subjected to something it finds unpleasant (and as we know, what the dog finds sufficiently “unpleasant” to modify it’s behaviour, is different for every, individual dog).
    I’d say those are pretty good odds, compared with the irreversible, radical solution to end that dog’s life.

    Yet again, I find myself nodding in agreement when I read your article. Suffice to say, I have nowhere near the level of experience you have, and have not had such severe cases as the ones you deal with day to day. Therefore, I have the utmost respect for your insights as a fellow trainer. ?Yes, I’m not afraid to say that… Why should I be? ?I wish there were many more moments of agreement amongst dog trainers, instead of this growing divisiveness to vilify one another. It does not serve anyone. Least of all the people and their dogs we should be helping.

    • Thanks for your comment, I have no problem with the LIMA principle itself, but when the goal of getting success is replaced by how much or how little pressure is used I think the focus is going to the wrong place.

      You are 100% correct whe you say there needs to be more collaboration between trainers and support of one another too, the true goal should be to help people and their dogs

  2. Thank you so much for this exceptional article, I was currently struggling with our choices for the future with our big fellow and really needed to read this today to confirm my faith in the possibilty of helping our boy make better choices and improve his life and ours. I was yet again being told by outside parties that our boy needs to be ethunanased due to his reactivity and aggression towards other dogs. Sadly our society seems to be a throw away one and a push towards if it is too hard just get rid of it. Our boy is not “perfect” nor are we and we are realistic in understanding that our leadership and direction or lack thereof impacts on the choices our boy makes. I really look foward to the opportunity to work with you and your team when we relocate to NSW.

    • In over 30 years of trainiong and behaviour work there have been very, VERY few instances where, with the right approach and followed by consistency, even the worst behaved dogs become much, MUCH better.

      Don’t give up, look forward to meeting you and your boy.

  3. Awesome article Steve. I have trained with you for 6 years with regular behavioural and competition consults, and as proud member of Team K9Pro the past 3 years. Living with a high drive bull breed pack is not easy and requires significant management. Although all 4 quadrants have always been available to me and discussed by you in my lessons, it has only been the past few months due to my health issues that I have asked you to help me better understand the quadrants I am less comfortable with. What an eye opener. Without even realising it I was subconsciously in the “SOME THINK” group, but now I am most definitely in the “REALITY” group. What truly surprises me the most is that I have CALMER, more BALANCED, more RELAXED dogs, and therefore a STRONGER relationship with my dogs, because they very clearly understand what I ask of them. Thanks for everything you do for us.

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