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The role of "Punishment" in dog training

As a dog trainer, I get questions every day about training techniques. My clients want to know when they should be rewarding, ignoring, or punishing behaviors. Each situation and every dog is different. So, how does a professional handle these different contexts?

I follow a Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) approach to dog training. This means that when I'm making a treatment plan for a client, I will always opt for starting out with treatments that are going to be least likely to be uncomfortable or disturbing for their dogs while still addressing their concerns. The infographic pictured above illustrates the Humane Hierarchy, or steps a trainer should use when treating a dog, starting with Wellness and using Positive Punishment only once the other steps have already been taken. A vast majority of dog training cases problems can be solved without ever using Positive Punishment at all!

Positive Punishment, often colloquially just known as "punishment," is simply when you add (the Positive) something to the dog's environment that makes him less likely to perform a behavior in the future (the Punishment). For instance, a trainer can use positive punishment by adding (the Positive) an unpleasant taste to a piece of furniture the dog likes to chew, reducing the dog's likelihood of chewing it (the Punishment). Alternatively, a trainer utilizing the LIMA hierarchy would not start there. Instead, we would first look at the Wellness aspect of the dog's life: is the dog perhaps a teething puppy, in need of something appropriate to chew to relieve pain? Is the dog suffering from Pica and needs to be seen by a veterinarian?

It's often wise to begin with a vet visit when you're starting up with training, even if your training concern seems unrelated to health issues. Once your vet confirms that your dog is not suffering from any physical or mental health problems, the next step is always to consider the dog's environment, before even attempting to change his behavior. After that, I will begin to work with the dog himself using techniques and tools that the dog will find super fun and stimulating. If the dog is experiencing issues with fear or aggression, they may not be able to have a "fun, exciting" session with me at first, and that's okay! For that dog, our first training goal will be to participate in training that the dog finds very nonthreatening and slow-paced so that he can relax and build confidence.

Because there are so many options to go through and so many tools in my toolbox before ever resorting to positive punishment, I truly don't need to use it at all. Even gentle verbal reprimands are made unnecessary by teaching the dog verbal CUES, instead, that tell them what I'd like them to do.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior provides an incredible overview of why punishment should be used carefully and only if other options have already been exhausted. CLICK HERE for the AVSAB's great article on the topic!


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