Dog Punishment in training.

Do not worry; this Holidays 4 Dogs article is certainly not going to advocate using punishment in managing and training dogs!  But the numbers of dog owners who employ traditional forced training methods on their dogs are still high, even in today’s more enlightened world.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100This is not to say the average pet owner goes around thumping their dogs.  It is not even suggesting that aversive methods don’t work – unfortunately they do and so people remain under the illusion that more of this must be a good thing.

However, what about the welfare of the dog?  How does using traditional methods of avoid and escape models, such as when training the dog to ‘heel’, really impact on the dogs psyche and can it actually create new problems or make the original one much worse?  The answer is yes.

Science has proved in experiments with rats that when electric shocks are given that the rats cannot avoid, they simply shut down.  In other experiments, rats were taught behaviours that would stop the shock from happening; therefore they were able to escape.  Alternative experiments involved the rats being able to prevent the shock from occurring by performing certain behaviour after a warning sign had happened (sound), thereby avoiding the electric shock.

In one particular experiment, the rats were unable to escape the electric shock at all. The experiment involved a single rat in a cage which had been taught to press a lever in order to get food.  Periodically a tone was sounded for one minute after which the rat received an electric shock from the cage floor – enough to make the rat jump.  The tone was simply to indicate to the rat that the shock was coming, but the lever providing the food still worked.  After 10 repetitions, it was observed that on hearing the tone, the rat stopped pressing the lever to receive the food; therefore its behaviour (working for the food) was suppressed.  In other words, the rats were frightened of being punished and in human terms we would refer to this as anxiety.  In the case of the rat, this must have meant fairly extreme anxiety and fear.

Conditioned suppression refers to the reduction in frequency of a learned response, such as operating a lever to gain food, when this occurs with a stimulus that is associated with pain (such as the tone).

This suppression of behaviours is often associated with good dog training by traditional trainers.  For example, when training a dog to walk to heel using a check chain the escape and avoid choices are clear. The principle is that when the dog pulls forward the handler gives the dog a lead jerk, or “correction”.  The collar is tightened around the dog’s neck and the dog must walk in the correct position to ‘escape’ discomfort, therefore suppressing the pulling behaviour.  However, put the dog on a flat collar and it is likely the dog will simply revert back to pulling the handler along.

The trouble with punishment is that even with expert knowledge on the subject, such as the importance of absolute timing; the less precise a handler is with punishments the less likely the dog will behave in the desired manner simply because of his fear of being punished.

There are many dog owners, who perhaps unwittingly punish their dogs, perhaps by a constant aggressive tone of voice, constant nagging (checking) on the lead, correcting at the wrong time (i.e. shouting at or rubbing a dogs nose in a mess he made earlier in the day) or simply punishing the dog for something he never understood was not wrong in the first place.

From a dog trainer’s point of view, correction does have a place in dog training, but this is very different from force training, or ‘avoidance’ training which includes the example outlined in the ‘heel’ training method using a check chain.  Without absolute perfect timing and without understanding your dog’s temperament, what motivates him, as well as understanding what effect the environment has on your dog, training using avoidance techniques can easily produce a dog that becomes largely stressed and confused – just like the lab rats.

It is not unusual to see someone walking their dog down the street, the dog pulling, the owner yanking the dog back and on they go with this sort of stop-go animated preamble.  This sort of nagging punishment is often something the dog learns to zone out from, therefore it is both cruel and ineffective.  If a handler finds himself having to correct his dog over and over again for the same thing, this simply means the dog has no idea what his handler is asking of him and/or the distractions in the environment are too strong for him, so clearly this is extremely unfair on the dog in question.

A punishment must be warranted and this certainly isn’t so if the dog has no idea what behaviour he should be doing – even thirty years ago when I was taught in traditional training methods, it was drummed into handlers that you only give a correction in the instance of non compliance of an absolutely known command.  If your dog does not yet understand sit, he absolutely cannot be punished for not doing it!  If your dog does not understand that he mustn’t chew your best shoes, because you have not taught him to chew on appropriate toys, he absolutely must not be punished!

As well as all this, using frequent punishment or constant nagging undermines the bond between dog and owner, so it is really important to think carefully and decide who is at fault and admit when we’ve stuffed up the training!

Punishment can also cause harm if it is administered in the wrong way, or in the wrong environment.  It is easy for a dog to associate a punishment with something else if the handler messes up with poor training.  If a dog is fearful of strangers for example and gets corrected every time it is near a stranger this will simply increase the dog’s fear of strangers.

Certain dog training experts on popular television programmes may be incredibly experienced in their use of punishment as a method of modifying canine behaviour, but these skills are being interpreted by viewers who cannot learn this level of expertise by watching a half hour long television programme.  This is being sold as a marvellous quick fix dog training trick in order to stop our dogs behaving badly overnight.  I have even heard of so- called dog trainers in my own county of Worcestershire who have set up dog training businesses on the back of watching such programmes on the television and reading the accompanying books!  So, let the buyer be aware, because force training can do more harm than good and almost certainly diminishes the bond that dog owner need for mutual understanding.

A. Gordon