The real problem I have with PUNISHMENT

A while ago I wrote an article called “positive doesn’t mean good” where I spoke about the terminology used in dog training and behaviour modification that are part of the Operant Conditioning principles.

I wanted this article to talk about the REAL problem I have with punishment.

Not the application of traditional systems and methods but the peoples actions which are denying people the help they so desperately need.

I warn you up front, this is one of my longer articles but it is a topic I think needs to be addressed and the truth pointed out. So might be time to grab that coffee and sit back and let this information sink in.

Every week, I meet dog owners sitting in front of me lost, feeling helpless and worse, feeling hopeless. Then there are the ones that have run out of time and their dog has done something terrible or has been euthanised.

They sit there powerless to have any effect on their dogs behaviour but yet suffer it every day. Their dogs are often highly frustrated and disconnected from their owners and feel confused and conflicted at every turn.

The owners are often frightened of what their dog may do if it gets near another dog, person, or worse a child. But most commonly they are frustrated and sad that there seems to be no hope.

The answer should be simple though, just get some professional help and the problems should start to melt away.

Well, the problem is that they very often have sought help and have been following the advice given without any success.

Depending on who they see they may be given and hand full of treats (that their dog will not even touch outside the house) a 7 million step protocol and perhaps a handful of pills coupled with the advice “you cannot even say No to your dog”!

Any questioning of the lack of results can often result in them being chastised and warned of the cruelty that lurks around horrible and cruel punishment methods and devices.

They are told horror stories that are quite often made up by the naysayers to frighten the already frightened owner into staying in the methodology they have been prescribed.

This is, in my opinion, an unnecessary and cruel punishment being exacted on the dog owner which filters through to the dog.

I have often wondered why would a person attack, so intensely the systems they don’t use and never have used, or even tried. I mean I don’t ever remember going that route with anyone, but then again the results I help the owners get mean that I don’t need to.

In my last article “Positive doesn’t mean good“, I discussed the actual meanings of positive, negative, reinforcement and punishment in the Operant Conditioning principles.

I want to focus this article on the meaning of negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment and where they can be applied to modify behaviour.

So, a quick recap

  • Positive means to add something
  • Negative means to remove something
  • Reinforcement increases the likeliness of the behaviour being repeated
  • Punishment reduces the likeliness of the behaviour being repeated


Positive Reinforcement is the only humane way to train a dog?

It can be suggested by some that training with Positive reinforcement is the only “humane” way to train a dog. Without addressing just yet if that is true.

I want to state that I have never witnessed a dog actually succeed in training without the use of punishment.

Most people who aim to train in a more positive (humane) way, who know enough about what they are doing will happily admit that they use two quadrants of the Operant Conditioning principles, which are Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment. The adding and removal of reward covers both these quadrants. So this is what I meant when I said I have not seen a dog trained without the use of some punishment.

Negative Punishment is the only humane type of punishment?

It seems to be a common belief that Negative Punishment is much kinder (humane) than any other type of punishment.

I do not agree, one consideration you have to make when it comes to the effects of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment is the value of the reward to the dog.

Offering a dog a food reward or removing same reward when the dog is not motivated by the reward has no reinforcing or punishing effect. Therefore no training takes place no matter how many repetitions you do. One million times 0 is still 0.

Many dogs will work very well within this framework at home, perhaps at a dog training club they have been to a number of times, but maybe not anywhere else or perhaps not if a dog or a person is in sight.

Therefore training stalls or fails because the food reward becomes worthless to the dog, therefore having no effect on the dogs behaviour. This flows onto the trainer or handler with them accepting that their dog will not take food in this situation.

There are other dogs in which the addition of a reward has an incredibly powerful effect, therefore it stands to reason that losing that reward will also have a powerful punishing effect.

That powerful punisher may be initially experienced through Negative Punishment (loss of expected reward) but the residual effect may be experienced through the stress hormone Cortisol, and this residual effect may last quite a long time.

So, it may be more “humane” to use a different punisher to modify training than one that has such a powerful effect on the dog. This seems to be very hard for some people to understand or agree to.

Humane means kind, compassionate, considerate and understanding.

Something that I would also like to add is that, the humanity in the system you use might come down to how easy it is for the dog to understand what exact behaviour causes the reward or punishment to come, even if that punisher is a simple loss of a treat…

An example I see often is that, a person is trying to teach their dog a recall (humanely) by using food. They call their dog that comes to them and when it gets there they give a sit cue.

The dog sits and is given a food reward, this is repeated hundreds of times but the recall is not getting any better at all.

In the chain of behaviours at a minimum, the dog was standing, then when called, the dog chose to come towards the handler, he or she made it all the way back and was given a sit command, then sat and was handed a reward.

How do we ensure that the reinforcement will be applied to the recall section and not the sit, or the approach or none of them?

If the dog did not sit and you put the food away and did not give this to the dog, how does the punishment apply to not sitting rather than any of the other behaviours in the chain?

The reality is that if you want to use 2 out of the 4 quadrants you will need to be very clear on what you are strengthening or weakening. You will need a dog with the pre requisite of strong food motivation and the ability to ignore most distractions if you are to get anywhere.

Therefore if you don’t fall into this category, your training fails.

When training fails because you have chosen a method that you or your dog cannot succeed in, how is that kind, compassionate, considerate or understanding? It isn’t, so it is far from humane.

Timing, is it possible that bad timing is a punisher?

I have often heard that, if you use punishment you need to have exact timing or you can be causing the dog to learn the wrong behaviour. How would it be different if we were using rewards?

If our timing if reward was off, we certainly could reinforce the wrong behaviour just as easily; and as we have heard how powerful reward based training is, perhaps you could do more harm with bad reward timing.

So the question is it more humane just by method to only use Negative Punishment when the value of the reward, the expectation and timing of it may control its potency?

More importantly, is it more humane to promote a training ideology that may not provide the results needed because there are many variables that can make or break the system.

Some criteria that will affect the effectiveness of the chosen system

  • How motivated is the dog for the rewards you have?
  • How clear is it to the dog that what he or she is doing controls the reward or punishment?
  • How much stress does the dog suffer when the reward is removed?
  • How fast is that stress relieved when the dog gets it right?
  • How motivated is the dog to display the behaviour that you are trying to stop?

These are some of the attributes that will affect the success of the program, and if you get some or all of these wrong, and the dog does not learn, what effect will that have on the dogs life?

  • Will the dog be allowed to run off leash?
  • Will the dog walk down the street choking itself on the flat collar?
  • Will the owner give up and accept that the dog is just not going to change?
  • Will the dog do something that causes the dog to be seized or the owner euthanise the dog?

If any or all of these happen, and they could have been prevented by professionally exploring other quadrants of the Operant Conditioning principles, is it not inhumane to deny the owner and dog access to systems that will be more effective in training this dog?

When humane becomes inhumane

I had a client come to see me with a Australian Shepherd, a nice dog with good food motivation but she was dog aggressive.

The client made it very clear to me that she wanted to use only Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment ONLY as she was working with a trainer but needed additional help in a more controlled environment, our indoor training facility.

The dog had a good understanding of reward systems so we began and I provided dogs for her do to walk around and she used the system that she had been using with her other trainer.

She booked a follow up for 8 weeks time and intended to work with her trainer in between now and then.

When the dog returned for the follow up I was shocked to see the dog had lost quite a lot of weight, my estimate was about 5 kgs in 8 weeks. The dog was probably 20 kgs when I first met it and now around 15 kgs, very thin and acting nervous and stressed.

At the last session her dog had worked quite well in our controlled environment and she and her trainer were trying to get the same level of result on the street.

Any time the dog worked well it was rewarded with food and when it didn’t it was not fed, this was the dogs only source of food.

Clearly the dog had not been doing well and they had been using Negative Punishment so much that the dog had lost a lot of weight. Its behaviour had become nervous and neurotic.


I advised the client that this regime was extreme and trying to push the 2 quadrants so hard that the dog had suffered. It took several minutes of looking at her dog for the client to start to realise what she had done.

Why push the dog so hard, verses utilise some other options? The answer is because she was told that all other options are cruel, will ruin her dog, are inhumane, archaic, non scientific and that there are better ways…

Whilst this is an extreme case, how about the client that came to me with a dog that was biting anyone that came to her home, often family members too.

They had been working with a specialist who had prescribed them 3 different medications to help with their dogs behaviour. After over a year on the medication with no appreciable change in behaviour, they were advised to euthanise the dog.

The dog stayed with us in our Board and Rehab program, went home behaving well and on no medication. Believe it or not, this is not an extreme case, it is a common case we are getting now.

If this client had not looked elsewhere this young dog would have spent the last year of her life over medicated and then euthanised.

Negative Reinforcement, is it more humane?

Negative Reinforcement is the removal of something unpleasant to reinforce (make stronger) a behaviour. In a comparison to the extreme examples I gave above, would a dog be better receiving a leash correction which lasts 0.2 of a second or missing out on food for the day and being hungry for 24 hours?

Which one would cause the most stress?

Which one would see the dog stressed an hour after the event that triggered the punishment? The residual effect of our actions are a very important indicator of success.

At least with Positive Reinforcement the worst that can happen is the dog does or does not get a treat

This thought process is dangerous, consider that, if all that can go wrong is getting or not getting a treat, it is very likely that getting or not getting a treat is all that is going right.

As a professional trainer, people come to see me because they need help. The help they need may be something like this: –

  • Belief that their dog can alter his or her behaviour
  • Regain hope and optimism
  • Remove stress and anxiety by showing them effective strategies
  • Help them control dangerous behaviours
  • Teach them the true elements of training and conditioning principles

Just to name a few, so if I become satisfied with the limitations of giving or removing a treat then I will be severly limiting my clients chances of success.

Lost and confused

I meet so many people that are lost and confused when it comes to what to do with their dogs behaviour, this is one of the reasons that my staff make so many videos to help people see that there is help available.

They come to me because the last person or group they were working with told them how much harm they would do to their dog if they used anything but rewards.

So, how did I ever get to meet them?

Well when the other system failed them, they came looking for help without limitations, politics, judgement and guilt ridden lessons.

So in fact the scaremongering, although distressing and anxiety causing was not enough to stop them looking for help when their dog did not improve.

All it served to do is punish them for trying, and THAT IS THE PUNISHMENT I HAVE A REAL PROBLEM WITH!

Do I use Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment?

Yes I most certainly do, when they will provide results and progress I prefer to use them for sure, but I am not locked into just those two quadrants like a cult.

I know many people who only use these two quadrants and and I have absolutely no problem with that either, why? Because when they can see that the dog will not fit into their ideology they refer the dog to someone who can help, rather than try and force the person to try hopelessly in a system that is not working.

It is the people who have little to no knowledge and or real experience in certain methods, yet they bash and attack them every chance they get.

They are not versed in the method and have decided to try something better, very often they have never even tried the method or tool, but yet spread propaganda anyway.

The big picture vs the small picture

When I client comes to me, I am applying the rule of three. What will the dog be like in 3 weeks, 3 months and 3 years and how will I get it there. These are short, mid and long term goals.

Often I have been watching someone train a dog and working the dog around a stressful stimulus, maybe their dog is dog aggressive and they are working around a dog for example.

Whispers eminate from the Peanut Gallery about stress and the dog licking its lips. That is a bad method, look how stressed the dog is, they say.

Another comment that another dogs tail was tucked means stress, anxiety.

Firstly, we all know that a dog wagging his tail does not mean the dog is happy or wants to be greeted, but a dog wagging his tail, with a nice soft expression on his face, slow tail wag, open mouth expression etc, you might feel comfortable to approach.

Dogs lick lips for a number of reasons, dogs wag tails for a number of reasons, some dogs have a naturally tucked tail when at rest, like Greyhounds for example.

We need to look at the whole body language picture and the given situation before making a judgement.

So what if the dog IS stressed?

When a dog is learning a new skill, regressing out of an old behaviour etc they will also experience some stress. Stress is a healthy part of life when it is managed and not overwhelming the mammal. Yes, that includes us.

Overcoming stress builds resilience!

I once watched a trainer handle a dog and work the dog in a program they said would eventually reduce aggression. They were plying the dog with piles of food and the dog was never once stressed throughout the whole session.

It also did not learn anything, change anything or feel anything but satisfaction after eating. Maybe this article can help (Feeding vs Reinforcing)

If you had a child and you had set a goal that this child would never be stressed, you would have failed whilst giving birth because travelling through the birth canal is stressful for a baby. This stress is said to produce children who deal with stress better than those who weren’t.

We know this is also true with puppies, we run a program called the Bio Sensor program on our puppies from 3 days of age until 16 days of age. This program introduces small amounts of stress to the puppies for short periods of time and is proven to grow puppies that are better able to deal with stress when adults.

Stop stressing about stress, it is normal when not in overwhelming amounts.

Positive Punishment – The Devils tool!

I have actually heard it called that, hey even I need a laugh, but when being serious, what is Positive Punishment?

Well I have discussed about the Positive means add something and Punishment results in the behaviour being less likely to be displayed.

That is it.

Yes of course there are some people that apply punishment at high levels when it is unneccessary, but that is abuse not training and just because someone uses Positive Punishment does not equal abuse.

The level of punishment administered should be the lowest level that causes the behaviour to decrease. Anything over that can simply overflow into the relationship between the dog and the handler.

Many times Positive Punishment is used in a highly stimulating environment and the only level that will get the dogs attention is extreme. Well the simple answer is that this dog needs to be moved to a lesser distraction environment where he or she can work successfully at their current level of competency.

The long game or the short game

When a dog comes to me, I have had them try and attack me, through fear, dominance, education and other reasons, but it does not matter, we are only starting. When they arrive is just a day in many, we will get past this, it is just a behaviour and when we do things will be great.

Will I use positive reinforcement only? Of course not but I will give the dog the best chance known to man to succeed, because that IS humane.

Take a look at some of my best friends (now), when they arrived we did not see eye to eye.

German Shepherd on arrival (here)

Great Dane that was aggressive on arrival (here)

German Shepherd that was highly aggressive on arrival (here)

Rottweiler attacking (here)

Shit Zhu aggressive (here)

It is about the long game, getting a dog back to the best behaviour they can deliver, helping owners rebuild their trust, faith and hope in their ability and their dog.

What it is not about is punishing owners for trying to help their dogs. What type of punishment are owners suffering?

Negative Punishment – removing chances of them finding success with their dog

Positive Punishment – adding critisism, abuse, fear and hopelessness to dog owners that look for reuklts ouytside ones ideology.

All creating Learned Helplessness in the dog owner…

Remembering that I have no problem with any training ideolgy, even ones that are in contradiction of mine, and I do not stop anyone or try to stop them training this way.

My secret mission is to help dogs and to do that I must arm dog owners with effective training solutions.

As always, feel free to share and would love to hear your comments here or on our Facebook page.

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. A great supporter of your work and your ethics Steve.

    I live the way you explain things and it’s very easy to understand your explanation. Sometimes I think many trainers out there confuse owners with their over explanation of training. My philosophy has always been keep it simple keep it basic.
    Owners want results, they don’t want to be confused by ones over complicated explanation of their own ideology. I’ve always said if we limit ourselves to two quadrants we limit the outcome for the dog. By looking at all the training practices we will increase the limits for the dog. Another great article keep the information coming. Hopefully one day I will have the opportunity to meet you.

  2. Terrific and thorough article on animal learning theory and the challenges that dogs and dog trainers today are facing. So many dogs suffer because their owners don’t understand how to train them properly. Thanks for all the good work you do!

  3. A good article Steve, but I am confused about the difference between the German Shepherds of today,
    and the German Shepherds of yesterday. (approx. 1960 up to approx. 1990.)
    I had little experience with these dogs to start with and I can honestly say I had no trouble with them socially or training. I have had Shepherds all this time and love them in every way. I now have 2 and one of them is “Dog Aggressive”. Still trying to improve with her.

    I love reading your Blogs.
    Regards Patricia.

    • Evolution in this breed can be directed morew towards showing or work and this may mean that some of their versatility is gone. We have also changed as well and so have the dogs that surround us. All these things play a part

  4. Choosing limited or narrow methods to train a dog is like wanting to choose the sex of your child. 1) it’s not accepting nature, and 2) leads to disappointment when the desired outcome doesn’t present itself.

    From what I have observed, it’s the owners/carers that need the correction. I see a lot of people who are so fearful of the confrontation and the more difficult side of training/socialisation, that they avoid it like the plague. It seems that those dogs are a lot less likely to learn how to behave in those critical situations, and they learn that their owner/trainer does not have the confidence (alpha traits), to be in charge, so respect and trust is weak.

    It’s inhumane to not use all suitable and safe methods to train a dog, so that they can get to the stage of greatest freedom, autonomy, and calmness. The better trained a dog is, the more likely it is to be able to go places with the owner/carer (and less likely to have an incident leading to euthanasia). It’s absolutely inhumane and cruel to not allow your dog the opportunity to explore its world (well beyond the fence).

    Just like humans, certain techniques or training can be more effective/successful at certain life stages/temperaments/life history. Much of what we know now of human psychology, was derived from early animal studies. So when I see people refuse to explore the similarities, I wonder if they have the maturity or intelligent for the task.

    I take a 10yr old German Shepherd and 9yr old Staffy x, out for leisure and activities. Both have never been formally trained, don’t respond to food or play, were unsocialised, anxious, fearful, aggressive etc. At their age they were easier to socialise, and teach how to behave outside, than any human I have known. And they successfully socialise off lead with both human and canid, in many High distraction environments (and I’m not their owner).

    I think people can forget their “fancy fad” training techniques, if they can’t get the respect and trust of their animal/friend. And if they won’t do anything to give their friend a better life (especially if that means adoption other training methods), I wonder why they take on such a responsibility.

  5. I was told by a trainer when I was enrolled in the NDTF course to never correct my dog. He was very anxious and reactive and pulled on the leash so hard I would fall over.

    Then I got a prong collar. He no longer pulls and lunges obviously, but his anxiety is also gone because he has learned impulse control through the use of the prong collar. Corrections have improved my dogs quality of life because he now has a clear understanding of how the world works and has learned impulse control.

    I see all kinds of head collars and harnesses to stop dogs pulling that never work cause the dog months of stress, especially dogs that haven’t been trained to wear their Halti that paw at it constantly. A prong collar is less stressful for the dog and gives perfectly timed corrections yet people who don’t understand see it as abusive.

    When we’re training for abstinence, only corrections work. The dog needs a reason not to do the undesired behaviour. I could have put my dog on a correction chain instead of a prong but he would have choked himself whilst pulling and lunging (he’s an amstaff- very strong willed). I would have injured my dog with a correction chain so I went straight to the prong collar and have no regrets.

  6. Thanks again for responding so quickly! I have read the article a few times, I guess what I am trying to ask is what do I do to make sure the puppy obtains a neutral value in situations? If I take Rosie the rottie puppy to my partner’s touch footy games and people and kids are fawning over her and she is loving the attention what can I do? If it gets over the top and I say okay I’m going for a walk kids and some rowdy kids whose parents aren’t around follow us jumping around talking loudly and keep getting her excited no matter what, what can I do? When I walk her down the beach front footpath and we pass 20 dogs and she has an interest in them and pulls towards them what should I be doing in that situation? I mean that’s the reality when trying to expose dogs to situations… I read the details but some examples of what to do would be helpful… I have a trainer who I have worked with my other dog who got attacked at the the dog park with but I am just interested in another opinion. Cheers Steve 🙂

  7. Thanks again Steve. I really appreciate it. I have read that article a couple of times, trying to best understand what to do haha. I guess I am just not sure how to combine neutralising other dogs for her while building confidence. Can you recommend anyone I can talk to in Brisbane? Cheers 🙂

  8. Interesting article, I always wonder, what are the most common reasons for dogs becoming like the ones in the videos you linked to (the “before” videos when they had just arrived at your facility)?? As the owner of a 5 month old Rottweiler, who I am really trying hard to socialise and train, but seeing things like this makes me nervous, that what I am doing is right? How can I know I am on the right track with a puppy and using good techniques that are working? Thanks for the blogs 🙂

    • Often these problems occur during socialisation problems. Dogs gaining the wrong value or to high a valkue for dogs and people and also something going wrong. This can help http://k9protraining.com.au/2013/02/13/socialisation-what-is-it-exactly/

      • Wow thanks for commenting back so quickly! In terms of socialising her with other dogs, she lives with another dog and they are getting along well and she regularly sees 4 other dogs who belong to friends and family, she seems to get along fine with them, they tolerate her puppy antics to a point and then tell her to leave them alone haha. She went to puppy preschool which went fine and obedience, but the other dogs at obedience were reactive and she couldn’t actually have any contact with them, just worked along side them. She hasn’t really met/made actual contact with many other dogs despite seeing lots on our walks and on walks we just encourage her to keep walking with us (a couple of tugs on the lead if she pulls towards them, come on Rosie let’s go). Are we doing the right thing there? I’m unsure how to continue her dog socialisation, as dog parks are out for me after our other dog was attacked a couple of years ago and I just feel I can’t trust others when they insist “my dog is friendly”, well will he be friendly when a rottie pup is licking him all over the face or will he snap and frighten her (wouldn’t blame the other dog for that of course just don’t want to risk Rosie being overly frightened and effected long term). The odd occasion she has met another dog outside of that she has been a little nervous, meeting big dogs at the pet shop where preschool was run and two off lead dogs running up to her on our walk one day, so I really want to build her confidence how to go about it… thank you!

        • I think you need to look at the details of the socialisation articlke I sent. The “puppy antics” are often what creates a very high value for other dogs and this is where aggression can grow.

          Engaging with dogs that she knows will not prepare her for dogs that she doesn’t, it would be worth seeing a trainer if you cant get to us.

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