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Spare the Rod: How important are discipline and punishment?

Recently, more researchers have become interested in the science of dog training. With all of the different approaches to training, it's important to really study each style before endorsing or criticizing them. How can we really know what works if we don't test and compare these different methods?

Some trainers use a "discipline-based" training style, using physical or verbal corrections in order to teach dogs which behaviors are desired or inappropriate. Corrections may include leash jerks, ear pinches, prong or choke collars, shock collars, physical correction using hands, or a sharp "NO". The goal in this style of training is typically to motivate a dog to learn and behave so that he may avoid a correction. These trainers often avoid the use of treats, toys, or praise in their training. A few common reasons these trainers will cite for not using rewards in training include:

  • A dog will not respect a person who trains without corrections and uses rewards instead.

  • Dogs learn more quickly with discipline-based training.

  • Using treats or other rewards is like a "bribe," and the dog will only respond when they know they are about to get treats.

  • You can't use rewards to train a dog to obey in high-distraction scenarios (like chasing a squirrel, playing with other dogs off-leash, etc).

On the other hand, more and more trainers are now using a "positive" approach to dog training. These trainers (myself included) utilize rewards like treats, toys, praise, petting, or even privledges like being allowed to get on the couch, as a way to teach new behaviors and stop bad habits. Positive trainers aim to motivate a dog to learn and behave so that he can earn good things. This style of training minimizes the use of corrections, both verbal and physical. These trainers would disagree about the necessity of punishments in training:

  • Dogs don't need to fear repercussions in order to respect someone! They will happily and reliably respond to commands if taught and given motivation to do so.

  • Dogs actually learn more quickly with positive training.

  • Treats are not used for bribery, but for motivation to learn. The goal is to wean off of the treats after the dog has reached a certain level of performance with the behavior.

  • Many dogs can be trained to respond in even the most distracting environments using rewards. The rewards simply have to be more exciting than the other things in the environment. Rewards like deli meats, pieces of hot dog, or cheese are typically used to train in these scenarios. For some dogs, no food or toy reward is more exciting than particular environmental stimuli. Trainers who lack understanding of the science at play will argue: "Some dogs will never leave a squirrel for a piece of cheese!" What they fail to understand is that it isn't a single piece of cheese at play. It's a learning history of HUNDREDS of pieces of cheese and successful experiences with recall that shape the dog's response. A trainer must develop a program addressing the specific environmental triggers that are likely to be overwhelmingly enticing for the dog. In some instances, the squirrel itself can be the reward for recalling away from the squirrel! Sound confusing? Your trainer should know EXACTLY how to utilize these types environmental reinforcers to train a dog. Luckily, there is no need to use force, pain, or punishment to do so!

With all of these opposing opinions, what's a dog owner to do? How do we know fact from fiction? Is one method more effective than the other, or is it simply a matter of preference? This is where the science comes in! Researchers aim to answer these questions not only for the average pet dog, but also because many dogs have jobs. Guide dogs, therapy dogs, military dogs, search and rescue dogs, and police dogs must go through extensive training. It is absolutely necessary to use the most effective training methods in order to get great working dogs! So, what does the science say?

These are just a few of the studies which have experimentally tested out the effects of different training methods. The results have been clear and direct; positive methods really are the most effective, humane, and fun way to train. Why make training unpleasant and coercive when the alternative is so much better?

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