Effective Painless Punishment: The Most Misunderstood Process in Dog Training

KPA CEUs: 1.5

Before we get into any discussion about the utilitarian or moral pros or cons of different training techniques, we must first make sure that we are all on the same page — that we have all trained the dog to criterion. Then comes the time to evaluate relative Reliability and Speed of Acquisition, Reward:Punishment Ratios and especially, the nature (Severity) of punishment, so we may ask the question, “ Was it really worth it?”

“But first, that stuff you’re doing — is it really punishment? Prove to me that it’s punishment. If it truly were punishment, you’d be doing it less today than yesterday. If it truly were punishment last week, you wouldn’t be doing it at all today. But you still are. So what is it? Can’t be punishment ‘cos there’s no change in behavior. Maybe harassment? Maybe abuse?”

Training hasn’t worked and this is when people really get frustrated and for the dog… it hits the fan.

“Dog still misbehaving after all those bad times? Time to up the level of punishment? But… it wasn’t punishment in the first place. Do you really want to change from annoyance to abuse?”

The first rule of punishment is tautological — punishment must be effective. If it is not effective, then by definition, it is not punishment. In order to be effective, the use of punishment must satisfy a whole bunch of criteria. I like trainers to quantify the number of Commands, Correct Responses and Rewards even when reward training. But when using punishment, we owe it to the dog to quantify the number of Punishments, to prove that they decrease over time, to prove that they are in fact punishments and to prove that the dog is being trained.

When applied correctly, punishment works extremely quickly, and so there is no longer any need to punish. The persistence of unwanted behavior is proof positive that punishment is NOT being applied correctly. Rather than reflexively reaching for a more severe punishment, the trainer should learn: 1. How to train and motivate the dog so that he doesn’t want to misbehave, and 2. How to effectively use punishment and especially, how to effectively use punishments that are neither painful nor scary.

The reality is that: most silent treatment, most sighs of exasperation, most shouts and screams, and most leash jerks and electric shocks are not punishment at all. Rather they are advertisement of ineffective “training”. So why don’t laboratory-proven punishment techniques work that well in practice?

Learning theory comes from thousands of laboratory experiments, in which consistent computers trained animals (manly rats and pigeons) using binary quantum feedback (food pellets and electric shocks). However, people are not computers and they do not have the ability to work tirelessly and consistently for hours on end, yet many trainers still rely on quantum, non-instructive feedback (clicks, kibble and shocks). It is difficult to learn from non-instructive, quantum punishment, especially when badly timed, or applied inconsistently and with emotion.

However, the use of language and voice  — both analogue and instructive — allows people to deliver much more sophisticated and effective feedback (instructive differential reinforcement) and to absolutely transcend the training ability of any computer (with its consistent, precisely-timed and clinical, yet non-instructive and quantum feedback).  Very high levels of response–reliability may be attained by simply, calmly and patiently, verbally insisting on cued-reliability.

Harsh tones and loud voices, or any physical means of enforcement or punishment, are simply unnecessary to achieve reliable performance. And if unnecessary, maybe we shouldn’t  use them at all.


Dr. Ian Dunbar

Dr. Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and dog trainer. He has written numerous books and hosted a dozen videos about puppy/dog behavior and training.

Dr. Dunbar received his veterinary degree and a Special Honors degree in Physiology & Biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College (London University) and a doctorate in animal behavior from the Psychology Department at the University of California in Berkeley, where he spent ten years researching olfactory communication, the development of hierarchical social behavior, and aggression in domestic dogs.

Dr. Dunbar is a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the California Veterinary Medical Association, the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (which he founded)—the largest and most influential association of pet dog training in the world.

Over the past 30 years, Dr. Dunbar has given nearly 800 one-day seminars and workshops for dog trainers and veterinarians in an effort to popularize off-leash, puppy socialization classes, temperament modification, and owner-friendly and dog-friendly dog training.

Dr. Dunbar is currently Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior in Berkeley, California, where he lives with Kelly, and Ollie, Claude, Dune, Ugly, and Mayhem.


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