It’s Time For An Adult Conversation About Punishment

A dog trainer in Loveland Colorado has been charged with felony cruelty to animals after an employee of his business witnessed the alleged abuse and called Larimer County Animal Control. The witness reported that the trainer hit, kicked, body slammed and rammed his own dog’s head through a sheetrock wall. Animal Control claims in the arrest affidavit that surveillance video supports the witness’s claims. 

The defendant hasn’t been convicted of the charges, as he has had only one preliminary hearing. Many commentators on news websites are condemning the trainer and his methods.  For example, one person says:

“It’s a sad fact, ALLOT [sic] of trainers believe in dominating through violent beatings. They beat the dogs into submission, never using positive interaction… More people need to come forward about such trainers and end this nightmare for the animals. ONLY positive reinforcement should be used…negative training such as this needs to be outlawed nationwide! (worldwide).”

This is an example of a larger problem in which people (the public and some pet professionals) confuse violence and abuse with the scientific process called punishment.  No reasonable person condones the use of any of these violent actions.  If this trainer indeed did these things to his dog, he should be held accountable, given the maximum sentence allowed by law, spend some time in jail, take anger management classes, and close his dog training business. But this “trainer’s” alleged actions we would argue certainly aren’t training, and can’t necessarily even be defined as punishment, at least not in the scientific sense. 

Part of the problem is that the term “punishment” is used by different groups of people to mean different things.  This not only creates confusion but also makes it difficult to have an objective, adult conversation about the use of punishment in the scientific sense.  For the general public, “punishment” often means a dastardly, abusive, violence motivated, inappropriate event usually involving severe pain or harsh treatment.   And what is termed punishment isn’t connected to its effect on behavior.  Clients would often tell us “I tried punishing him but it didn’t do any good”. 

Equating punishment with abuse is simply a false position and only serves to fuel the flames of mis-understanding and polarization.  It is just as inaccurate as making operant conditioning synonymous with clicker training.

For academic psychologists and animal behaviorists “punishment” has a much more technical and specific meaning and describes a learning process.  Many people don’t even know there are two forms of punishment.  For professionals, positive punishment is the delivery of some consequence (assumed to be unpleasant) following a behavior that leads to a decrease in the frequency of that behavior in the future. 

Notice that just the delivery of this unpleasant stimulus isn’t punishment unless it results in a decrease in the behavior that preceded it.  You can see where the confusion arises in the use of the term.  Hitting a dog with a rolled up newspaper for getting into the trash is “punishment” in the popular sense but not in the technical sense if it doesn’t stop the trash diving.  It is unfortunate that the psychologists picked the terminology they did to label this learning consequence.  But, as we say these days, it is what it is. 

The second form of punishment is negative punishment.  This is the withdrawal or with holding of some consequence (assumed to be rewarding) following a behavior that leads to a decrease in the frequency of that behavior in the future. This is also punishment in the technical sense, because it results in a decrease in behavior. With holding of expected reinforcement has been shown in learning labs to produce frustration and other unpleasant emotional reactions but in many dog training circles, negative punishment is deemed acceptable while positive punishment is not. 

In recent years, there has been a movement among trainers, animal behaviorists, animal behavior consultants, veterinarians, other pet professionals and sophisticated pet owners  to minimize the use of positive punishment (in the scientific sense) as a means of changing pet behavior. A variety of guidelines, position statements and articles have been written in support of the movement, but for the most part, these statements haven’t called for the abolition of or a “ban” on punishment (particularly positive punishment), but rather for a reduction in its use, an understanding of the effects of positive punishment on behavior, and criteria for using it effectively when necessary, built around a “rewards-based” program.   

The move to focus on eliciting and reinforcing desired behavior while minimizing the use of positive punishment is a worthwhile endeavor.  Unfortunately, some folks have misinterpreted the guidelines and position statements, and/or the scientific research on punishment, and concluded that punishment “doesn’t work”, that it always results in fear and aggression and that it’s impossible to use it appropriately without causing harm.  

These folks maintain that any sort of positive punishment has no place in dog training whatsoever and that training should be “force free” (whatever that means)  using ONLY positive reinforcement.  While individuals are entitled to their own beliefs, these sorts of positions have become quite emotional and polarizing, especially when they include personal criticism of those who even talk about punishment and its criteria for use.  If one uses a leash and collar, raises their voice to their dog, or used a "body block" then arguably, one has used positive punishment.

Rather than name calling, canceling seminars, and threatening to walk out of lectures when someone is simply discussing the uses and misuses of punishment, it’s time to have an adult conversation and refine the discussion about this issue.

This refusal to even consider learning about the science behind this important learning process is distressing and reminiscent of the rejection of scientific findings about the earth not being flat and the center of the universe, about evolution, or about global warming when such information doesn’t fit with personal beliefs.  Boy, we’ve probably stepped in it now!

“Punishment happens”, and there is no escaping it.  Put your hand under a faucet of hot water and you are less likely to do it in the future. Walk outside into a blizzard in shorts and a tank top and you are not likely to do it again.  It also is an important part of life for our animals. Punishment can be that life-saving process that keeps people and animals from continuing to do things that are dangerous, maladaptive or just unpleasant.

Punishment can be effective in stopping behavior.  Can it be used in the wrong way and result in harmful outcomes?  Absolutely.  Can it also be an appropriate behavior modification technique that produces desired behavior changes without unwanted side effects when used correctly and judiciously?  The answer is yes. 

We’ll continue this adult conversation in our next article.  

Need a place to start?  Check out our Fundamentals of Animal Learning Program


  • Laura Walker

    Reply Reply

    I use punishment daily, negative and positive, and I recommend it to people I train. Horrible, isn’t it? Get the stockades!

    My positive punishment? I use bitter sprays on things I don’t want chewed.
    My negative punishment? I use time outs.

    It surprises me how many people use punishment without realizing it and consider it a dirty word. But punishment doesn’t have to be painful or scary to be effective. Discipline is another one that has gotten negative connotations without deserving it.

    What frightens me about training methods that use punishments that are assumed to be painful and scary is trusting the average person to have the timing/discretion to use it correctly. (i.e. “If a small, barely there shock works, then one cranked on high must work better.”) If I train someone to use a clicker and they do it incorrectly, the worst thing that can happen is they have an ineffective clicker. If I teach someone to use a shock collar, the worst thing that can happen can include physical/emotional ramifications that are much greater. That’s why I am a strong believer in teaching the least punishing methods you can use, not the most.

    Then again, I’d rather discuss abortion and politics with someone who disagrees than dog training, because it will be less emotional. 😉

  • Thank you!

    I am a primarily reward-based trainer. But my hobby is hunting dogs. Most of them are trained using shock collars ( not mine) and are wonderful dogs who are not aggressive, not fearful and their owners love them dearly. I will/do not win any converts to +R by telling them avoidance training doesn’t work and will make an aggressive/fearful dog. They know with their own experience that that isn’t true every time. If a dog is taught how to avoid the shock then it has control over the consequences and doesnt release as much cortisol (from the Schalke paper) Certainly I see shock collar training mis-used with heart breaking results. And I don’t want to use it myself. Condemning the handlers doesn’t convince them to stop. Showing them that an alternate method WORKS that doesn’t cause their beloved companion as much stress, may convince them. So that’s where I’m going to put my efforts.

    The world is not an all positive place. Teaching our children and our animals how to deal with some stress makes them confident and balanced individuals.

  • Good Doctors,

    This is an excellent tutorial on the science of learning. Certainly I agree that punishment in the scientific sense is at play in shaping behavior. I think, however, many of us are looking to you as leaders to help not only on the intellectual front but on the front lines. What are our lettered leaders and professional organizations doing to extinguish (dare I say punish) non-contingent and / or excessive pain and fear inflicted on dogs in the name of training? We get the science, but how are we protecting dogs from brutal and terrifying trainers in the marketplace? If I’m not mistaken, the man you mention in your blog post is a member of APDT. How has that organization responded, or changed it’s policies?

    My concern here is that we in the rank and file of dog training aren’t getting the support we need. Instead our teachers are shaking their heads and waiving their fingers as if we are impetuous children who just need to calm down. You, good doctors, and your colleagues broke new ground when you taught us the science of dog training. Please, take the lead again and help us change the culture of dog training. We’re up against formidable forces who are frightening and hurting dogs daily. We don’t need your admonition. Please, we need your help.

    Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Hi MIchael –
      We certainly agree with you that it will take a concerted effort from a variety of pet professionals, from trainers to behaviorists to veterinarians and others to “raise the bar” and affect the “culture of dog training”. And don’t forget the dog owning public in that list!

      The culture has changed, we think quite dramatically from what it was in the 1970s thanks to the efforts of a lot of people and organizations.

      But in order to increase cooperation, we have to refine the discussion. We are just as outraged as you are when bad things are done to dogs for any reason, but in particular in the name of supposedly training them. But, to work together, well meaning people who want good things for dogs also need to listen to one another. Most of us have more in common than we have differences.

      When the discussion centers around “banning” all forms of positive punishment or condemning anyone who promotes the use of “force” ( using a plain ole’ leash and buckle collar can be an example of force) it tends to put people in different “camps” and makes it difficult to work together to make a difference in the bigger scheme of things.

      A number of professional organizations have, since the late 1980s, attempted to come up with unifying statements or standards, and have never gotten “buy in” from a majority of the dog training world. We’ll all applaud when someone figures out how to do that!

      Suzanne and Dan

  • Tamara J. Mrose

    Reply Reply

    Brava! Bravo! Hurray!

    “With holding of expected reinforcement has been shown in learning labs to produce frustration and other unpleasant emotional reactions but in many dog training circles, negative punishment is deemed acceptable while positive punishment is not. ”

    This is crucial for new learners to understand.

    Additionally, when using P-, the learner does not have a clear understanding of when the ‘punishment’ is over. P- is often unclear and emotionally based and shouldn’t be used without understanding the limitations and long term affects.
    Thank you!
    Tamara J. Mrose
    Deerwood Kennels
    Keeseville, NY

  • Your points are all well made. I understand and agree that punishment is not a four-letter word, and that there is a backlash (of total opposition to any punishment) among some trainers that is extreme in it’s personal condemnations. The pendulum has swung too far, which is a natural response to the excess of punishment to which dogs have been subjected.

    You describe the emphasis on positive reinforcement training as a “worthwhile endeavor”. My adjectives would be much more enthusiastic. I think it is the best thing that ever happened to dogs and dog training. How amazing dogs are! How exciting it is to unlock the communication barrier and share a common language with clicker training. And how rewarding it is to see owners’ faces light up with joy when they discover the intelligence and willingness within their dogs.

    For much too long, we have relied on positive punishment to make unwanted behavior “stop, now!”. What exactly is the dog learning? That his owner is unpredictable? That sometimes “sit” means a cookie is coming, and sometimes “sit” means a collar correction? Or worse, we teach dogs that life is all about avoiding bad stuff, and that owners are the source of bad stuff.

    In my experience, the reasons most people employ positive punishment are:
    1 – to get quick “results” (i.e., behavior stops)
    2 – they don’t know how to train an alternate behavior with positive reinforcement
    3 – it’s an emergency management situation

    Yes, you are correct that ““Punishment happens”, and there is no escaping it.” That is not a justification for using it as a primary training tool. Your point, I think, is that even when we strive to use positive reinforcement with our animals, punishing things happen. Even stopping a (positive-reinforcement) training session can be perceived as punishing by the animal.

    If my dog is about to steal my Thanksgiving turkey, I will stop him. He will be disappointed. That is not a training plan, it’s an emergency intervention. If I am a good positive-reinforcement trainer, I will recognize the need to train an alternate behavior and create a positive-reinforcement training plan. What I won’t do is put a shock collar or choke chain on the dog, bait the counter with smelly food, and punish him every time he tries to go for the food. Would both methods achieve the same goal? Probably, if they were well implemented. But ask the dog which method he would prefer.

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Hi Marie – Thanks for your comment. Our article did not contain any suggestion anywhere of setting a dog up for punishment. We know that a number of training books from the 1970s suggested that kind of method, but we certainly didn’t in the article, nor did we suggest using that method as a primary training tool.

      Again, it goes to the point of the article which is refining the discussion. If someone yells NO at their dog to stop him from stealing the turkey – even if it’s an “emergency intervention” – if it prevents the turkey stealing then it could be labled punishment. Should that person be criticized for “using punishment?” We think not.

      Certainly setting a dog up to be punished should not be any modern, educated, state of the art trainer’s method of choice. So we are definitely in agreement there. And we found your three reasons why owners most often use P+ to be true, in our experience as well.

      Suzanne and Dan

  • What a great topic! I’m nodding and nodding as I’m reading. There really is no such thing as positive-only training (withholding a click is a punishment!). I have been calling my training “positive-emphasis” training, and I carefully define what “consequences” are, both good and bad. And I don’t use the word “punishment” with my clients ever because it conjures up the wrong thinking.

    Can’t wait for next installment.

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Hi Christy –
      There are a number of words in the dog training world that “conjure up wrong thinking” – punishment is one, “dominance” is another. Defining “good” and “bad” consequences is certainly a less “charged” way of talking about an issue that carries a lot of baggage.

      Suzanne and Dan

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Hi Laura – we agree with the points you made in your comments. We had to laugh at your closing remark though! Discussions about dog training techniques among those in the field can be just as highly charged as those other issues you mentioned.

    Which is one point of the article – encouraging well meaning people to discuss the topic a bit more rationally without verbally assaulting one another. Bitter tasting substances can be an example of a positive punishment that doesn’t cause harm, and there are others, some of which we mentioned in the article. Another reason to refine the discussion.

    Suzanne and Dan

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Hey Terry – keep up the good work. We know several people involved in the hunting and field trial world who successfully train without shock collars. I think you’ve chosen a good place to concentrate your efforts. Keep it up!
    Suzanne and Dan

  • Tamara Dormer

    Reply Reply

    This is an excellent article. What I wonder is if we as humans (vs. dog trainers) have our own preconceived notions about that word punishment. I know that I do based on what my parents called punishing me and how my parents dealt with my misbehaviors. And no, I was not abused, beaten or the like. But I was grounded, yelled at, and had privileges removed. While that is not horrible by any means, the word “punishment” still has negative connotations for me (because who wants to be grounded when you can go roller skating?), no matter the science behind it. However, as you say the word chosen by the scientists is what it is. I believe our own life experiences influence how we view certain words in society or dog training and admittedly my own perception makes me hate just the word.
    So, while I am one of those reward-based trainers and realize what you are saying is true and very well described, I still have to admit to not liking the word and allowing that dislike to color my own ways of dealing with the use of punishment while training our animals. I’m not saying it is a reasonable way to feel about the topic, but just what happens to me when I hear the word.

    I’m looking forward to the follow-up article on this topic.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Hey Tamara – thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think the take home message here – and it’s an important one – is that you recognize you have a “gut”, emotional reaction to the word punishment, but that you are able to take a step back from that and look at the discussion from a rational perspective.

    We all have immediate, knee-jerk reactions to a varietiy of hot-button issues. But a more mature, experienced person I think learns to stop and think and even listen to opposing viewpoints rather than walking out of lectures or calling people names. And clearly that’s what your comment shows you are doing – acknowledging and accepting your emotional reaction but then also thinking about the issues.

    No “normal” individual – person or animal – likes being punished – whether its negative or positive punishment – but that’s why it’s punishment! We’ll change our behavior to avoid the unpleasantness in the future. As a self-described “reward based trainer” you know you use negative punishment, even if you don’t like the word. Your comment is an example of refining the discussion in your own head! Good job.
    Suzanne and Dan

  • Jenny Haskins

    Reply Reply

    There is one very serious issue re ‘punishment’ and that is just exactly *what* the speaker means by the term.

    The Behaviourists (Skinner/Watson) took a perfectly good English word and redefined it.

    I really think it very unfortunate that Skinner’s use of the term “punishment” is still being used., because it is so misleading We need to have some true equivalent of the use of ‘reinforcer’ — ‘diminisher’ has been suggested.

    So in ‘behaviorist’ terms, “punishment” is a necessary part of training/learning.

    But most people do not use or think of punishment in ‘Behavorist’ terms. They think of ‘punishment either as a ‘penalty for wrongdoing’ or as ‘harsh or severe treatment’.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Intrestingly Jenny when we looked on the merriam webster site one of the examples of punishment was taking away the car keys – a negative punishment technique!

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