Punishment is such an ugly word.  Use it in a piece about dog training and people either get their knickers in a knot (I would never punish my dog) or people get defensive (I do not punish!  I correct and discipline).

Much like the blog I wrote about positive training being dangerous, this is all about semantics.  Punishment is another one of those technical terms that can derail a conversation.  You can see the train wreck coming, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Webster’s defines punishment as, “suffering, pain and loss that serves as retribution…severe, rough, disastrous treatment.”

In dog training, punishment is technical jargon.  For that reason, it leads to confusion because most dog owners equate punishment with Webster’s harshness.  In dog training, it means to suppress.  For example, if you take measures to stop your dog from jumping up, you have used punishment.

Turning your back on a jumping dog to snub and withdraw attention is punishment.  Timeouts are punishment.  Are these harsh and painful?  Doubtful.

Others can be.  Punishments range in severity from leash corrections, slapping, poking or kneeing the dog.

Is it wrong to punish a dog?  That seems to depend more on the technique and severity than the technical definition of the word.  Is it okay to slap a dog?  What about using a leash and collar to leash correct the dog?  How hard should you be able to jerk on the leash?  Really, how many pounds per square inch of pressure can a dog’s neck take? Depending on the breed it might not be very much at all.  Pressure on a dog’s neck can lead to pressure that can damage their eyes.  Where does punishment cross the line from training into abuse?

Here is the problem that I see.  A thick coat of fur masks physical signs of an injury, such as bruising.  To me, that seems a lot like a child who hides the marks of a beating under a shirt.  You cannot identify physical harm if you cannot see it.  Do I know that any of these methods cause bruising?  No.  Therein lies the problem.  Not only can we not see physical injuries, we cannot ask the dog because it is not talking.

Animal cruelty laws in my opinion are lax and cowardly in this area.  It is as if the word “training” gives owners and some trainers a free pass.  Carte blanche is given to an “anything that works” excuse.  The word “training” can turn offensive behaviours into something acceptable.

Most S.P.C.A. agencies (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) have guidelines.  However, they tend to be fuzzy where dog training is concerned.  Owners, in my opinion need to know exactly where the line between acceptable techniques and abuse stands.  I think that some of these agencies should probably step up to the plate and give owners some clarity here.  I would love for agencies and officers to answer those questions – clearly – in ways owners can understand.  Spell it out.  Because in my books, when you tolerate anything, you stand up for nothing.

Personally, I use timeouts and loss of privileges.  That’s not to say I use them as a method of choice and on all dogs.  For example, a time out given to a dog with separation anxiety would not be appropriate in my books.  Any sort of punishment without first teaching appropriate behaviour would be confusing and unfair.

Theoretically, any technique could be misapplied to the point of cruelty.  Physical touch and pettting can be sheer torture to the puppy mill dog.  Loud praise, clickers and whistles are potentially fear inspiring to an animal that has a sensitivity to noise.  The individual needs of the animal are important.

Technically everything can be taken to extremes if one were to go that route.  But that’s not what this blog is about.  It’s about techniques that when used correctly are supposed to cause pain or discomfort.  Those are the techniques that I do not use, along with those shown to trigger aggression.  It puts people at risk of an injury.  Research shows they are less effective than gentler methods.  Why would anyone want to be harsh when it is more effective to be kind?

What is the proper way to use punishment?  It is when you suppress behaviour without ever coming close to the Webster’s definition of pain and suffering.  Why is that important?  Because pain and suffering is the definition of abuse.  Training should never be a free pass for dog abuse.