The real problem I have with PUNISHMENT

I aimed for this article to delve into the genuine issue I have concerning punishment. Not just the implementation of traditional systems and methods, but the actions of individuals that deny others the assistance they so urgently require.

I want to forewarn you that this is one of my more extended articles, yet I believe it addresses a crucial topic that requires attention and candid discussion. So, it might be a good time to grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and absorb this information.

Every week, I encounter dog owners sitting before me, adrift, feeling powerless, and, worse yet, experiencing hopelessness. Then there are those who have run out of time, and their dogs have committed severe actions or have been euthanized.

They sit there, incapable of influencing their dogs’ behavior, yet enduring it every day. Their dogs are frequently highly frustrated and disconnected from their owners, feeling perplexed and conflicted at every turn.

Owners often fear what their dogs might do when approaching another dog, a person, or, worse, a child. However, most commonly, they are frustrated and saddened by the apparent lack of hope.

The solution should be simple—seek professional help, and the problems should begin to dissolve.

However, the problem is that they often have sought help and followed the given advice without any success.

Depending on the source, they may receive a handful of treats (that their dog won’t even touch outside the house), a complicated seven-million-step protocol, and perhaps a few pills, accompanied by the advice “you cannot even say No to your dog”!

Questioning the lack of results can often lead to chastisement, with warnings about the cruelty associated with harsh punishment methods and devices.

They are told horror stories, often fabricated by naysayers to scare the already frightened owner into adhering to the prescribed methodology.

In my opinion, this is an unnecessary and cruel punishment inflicted on the dog owner, which consequently affects the dog.

I have often wondered why someone would vehemently attack systems they haven’t used or attempted. I don’t recall taking that route with anyone, but then again, the results I help owners achieve eliminate the need.

In my previous article, “Positive doesn’t mean good,” I explored the true meanings of positive, negative, reinforcement, and punishment in the principles of Operant Conditioning.

This article aims to concentrate on the meanings of negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment, and where they can be applied to modify behavior.

A quick recap:

  • Positive means to add something.
  • Negative means to remove something.
  • Reinforcement increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated.
  • Punishment reduces the likelihood of the behavior being repeated.
Operant conditioning

Is Positive Reinforcement the only humane method for dog training?

Some assert that training with Positive Reinforcement is the only “humane” approach to training a dog. Without delving into the validity of that claim just yet,

I want to emphasize that I’ve never observed a dog successfully trained without the application of some form of punishment.

Many individuals who strive to employ a more positive (humane) training approach, and possess sufficient knowledge, readily acknowledge utilizing two quadrants of Operant Conditioning principles—Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment. Both involve the addition and removal of rewards. This is what I meant when stating that I haven’t witnessed a dog trained without some form of punishment.

Is Negative Punishment the only humane type of punishment?

There’s a prevailing belief that Negative Punishment is gentler (more humane) than other forms of punishment.

I disagree; a crucial consideration when evaluating the impact of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment is the value of the reward to the dog.

Offering a food reward or withdrawing the same reward when the dog lacks motivation has no reinforcing or punishing effect. Consequently, no training occurs, regardless of how many repetitions are attempted. One million times 0 still equals 0.

While many dogs may perform well within this framework at home or a familiar training club, they might struggle elsewhere or when other dogs or people are present.

Training stalls or fails because the food reward loses its value, having no impact on the dog’s behavior. This can extend to the trainer or handler, who may accept that their dog won’t accept food in certain situations.

For some dogs, the addition of a reward yields a potent effect, suggesting that losing that reward will also have a powerful punishing effect.

This powerful punisher might initially manifest through Negative Punishment (loss of expected reward), but the residual impact may be felt through the stress hormone Cortisol, lasting a considerable duration.

Therefore, it might be deemed more “humane” to employ a different form of punishment for training modification—one that doesn’t exert such a powerful influence on the dog. This concept can be challenging for some individuals to comprehend or accept.


Humane denotes kindness, compassion, consideration, and understanding.

It is of paramount importance to emphasize that the success of the training system depends on how well the dog understands which behavior leads to a reward or punishment, even if it is as simple as the loss of a treat. To ensure that the reinforcement is related to the desired behavior, the dog must have a strong food motivation and the ability to ignore distractions. Only then can we truly call the system humane.

An example frequently observed is when someone endeavors to teach their dog a recall (humanely) using food. They call their dog, which comes to them, and upon arrival, they give a sit cue.

The dog sits and receives a food reward. This process is repeated numerous times, yet the recall doesn’t improve at all.

In the sequence of behaviors, at a minimum, the dog transitions from standing to coming toward the handler, receives a sit command, sits, and is rewarded.

How do we ensure that the reinforcement applies to the recall and not to the sit or the approach or none of them?

If the dog fails to sit and you put the food away without rewarding, how does the punishment specifically target not sitting rather than any other behavior in the chain?

The reality is that to use two out of the four quadrants, one must be very clear about what is being reinforced or weakened. It requires a dog with strong food motivation and the ability to ignore most distractions to make progress.

If you don’t fall into this category, your training is destined to fail.

When training fails because you’ve chosen a method in which you or your dog cannot succeed, how can it be considered kind, compassionate, considerate, or understanding? It isn’t; therefore, it falls far short of being humane.

Regarding timing, is it possible that poor timing acts as a punisher?

It’s commonly said that if you use punishment, precise timing is crucial to avoid the dog learning the wrong behavior. How would it differ if we were using rewards?

If our timing with rewards were off, we could easily reinforce the wrong behavior. Considering how potent reward-based training can be, bad timing with rewards might cause more harm.

So, the question arises: is it more humane, purely by method, to rely solely on Negative Punishment when the value of the reward, its expectation, and timing may dictate its effectiveness?

More importantly, is it more humane to endorse a training ideology that might not yield the necessary results due to the numerous variables that can either make or break the system?

Factors influencing the effectiveness of the chosen system:

  • How motivated is the dog for the available rewards?
  • How clear is it to the dog that its actions control the reward or punishment?
  • How much stress does the dog experience when the reward is withheld?
  • How quickly is that stress alleviated when the dog performs correctly?
  • How motivated is the dog to display the behavior you are trying to discourage?

These attributes significantly impact the success of the program. If some or all of these aspects are not properly addressed and the dog fails to learn, it raises concerns about the dog’s overall well-being:

  • Will the dog be permitted to run off-leash?
  • Will the dog strain against a flat collar while walking down the street?
  • Will the owner give up, accepting that the dog won’t change?
  • Could the dog engage in behaviors leading to seizure or euthanasia by the owner?

If any of these unfortunate outcomes could have been prevented by exploring other quadrants of Operant Conditioning principles, is it not inhumane to deny the owner and dog access to more effective training systems?

When humane practices turn inhumane:

A client approached me with an Australian Shepherd, a generally well-behaved dog with strong food motivation but exhibiting aggression towards other dogs. The client insisted on using only Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment, seeking additional assistance in our controlled indoor training facility.

After eight weeks, the dog returned noticeably underweight, having lost around 5 kgs. It appeared nervous and stressed, having experienced Negative Punishment excessively, with food being its sole source of sustenance.

Is this approach humane?

I pointed out to the client that this extreme regimen had adversely affected the dog’s well-being. It took some time for the client to realize the impact of pushing the two quadrants so aggressively.

In another case, a client came with a dog displaying aggressive behavior towards visitors, even family members. They had consulted a specialist who prescribed three medications, yet there was no improvement after a year. Euthanasia was recommended. The dog went through my training program program, and became a well-behaved, and off medication member of the family, illustrating an alternative and successful outcome.

Is Negative Reinforcement a more humane approach?

Negative Reinforcement involves removing something unpleasant to reinforce behavior. In comparison to extreme examples, is a brief leash correction (lasting 0.2 seconds) more humane than withholding food for a day, causing hunger for 24 hours?

Consider which one induces more stress and results in lingering stress an hour after the event triggering the punishment. The enduring impact of our actions is a crucial indicator of success.


With Positive Reinforcement, the worst-case scenario involves the dog either receiving or not receiving a treat

. However, this simplistic perspective is perilous. If the only potential issue is treat-related, then it’s likely that the focus on treat outcomes is overshadowing broader aspects of successful training.

As a professional trainer, my clients seek help for various reasons, such as:

  • Believing their dog can change its behavior
  • Restoring hope and optimism
  • Alleviating stress and anxiety through effective strategies
  • Managing dangerous behaviors
  • Understanding the true principles of training and conditioning

If I become content with the limitations of treat-based approaches, I severely curtail my clients’ chances of success.

Lost and Confused:

Many individuals are lost and confused about how to address their dog’s behavior. This confusion often leads them to seek help.  People come to me after being warned about potential harm by those advocating only reward-based methods.

How did I meet them? When their initial system failed, they sought help without limitations, politics, judgment, or guilt-ridden lessons. Despite scaremongering, they persevered in their quest for improvement.

Do I use Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment?

Absolutely, when they yield results and progress. However, I am not confined to these two quadrants like a cult. Many trainers exclusively use these quadrants, and I have no issue with that because they refer dogs that don’t fit into their ideology to others who can help.

The Problematic Critics:

The issue lies with those lacking knowledge and experience in certain methods but criticize them without understanding or attempting them. They spread unfounded propaganda without practical experience.

The Big Picture vs. the Small Picture:

When a client seeks my guidance, I consider short-term (3 weeks), mid-term (3 months), and long-term (3 years) goals. This holistic approach guides my training methodology.

Addressing Stress:

Comments from onlookers about a dog’s stress based on behaviors like lip licking or a tucked tail may lack context. Dogs exhibit various signals for different reasons, and a comprehensive assessment of body language and situational factors is essential.

Handling Stress:

Stress is a part of learning and adaptation for dogs, similar to humans. Managed stress builds resilience. Overwhelming stress is detrimental, but controlled stress during learning experiences fosters growth.

Managing Stress in Training:

I witnessed a trainer excessively using treats to manage a dog’s aggression, resulting in an unstressed but unresponsive dog. Stress is a normal part of life, and undue concern about stress levels is counterproductive.

In conclusion, embracing a nuanced understanding of training methods, focusing on broader goals, and acknowledging the role of stress in learning contribute to a more effective and humane approach to dog training.


Positive Punishment – A Controversial Approach

Some humorously refer to Positive Punishment as “The Devil’s tool,” but in a more serious tone, what does it entail?

As discussed earlier, Positive means adding something, and Punishment aims to decrease the likelihood of a behavior being displayed. That’s the essence of it.

Certainly, there are instances where people apply punishment excessively, verging on abuse rather than effective training. However, it’s crucial to emphasize that using Positive Punishment doesn’t automatically equate to abuse. The key is to administer the punishment at the lowest effective level, preventing any spill-over into the relationship between the dog and the handler.

Positive Punishment is sometimes applied in highly stimulating environments, requiring extreme measures to capture the dog’s attention. In such cases, the solution is to relocate the dog to a less distracting environment where they can work at their current competency level successfully.

The Long Game versus the Short Game:

When a challenging dog comes to me, displaying aggression due to fear, dominance, or other factors, it’s just the beginning of our journey. Regardless of the issues present on arrival, we view it as just a phase in the overall process. While Positive Reinforcement is not the sole method used, I prioritize giving the dog the best chance to succeed, promoting a humane approach.

The journey with some of my challenging canine friends showcases the long-term perspective:

The focus is on the long game—guiding a dog back to their best behavior, aiding owners in rebuilding trust, faith, and hope in their abilities and their dogs.

What it’s not about is punishing owners for their efforts to help their dogs. Unfortunately, owners can face a form of punishment themselves:

  • Negative Punishment – stripping away chances of finding success with their dogs
  • Positive Punishment – adding criticism, abuse, fear, and hopelessness to dog owners who seek results outside a specific ideology.

This can inadvertently create learned helplessness in the dog owner, hindering their ability to effectively support and train their pets.