Punishment and Principles – Where is the Line?

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.

7 thoughts on “Punishment and Principles – Where is the Line?

  1. I agree that not being able to see the effects of physical abuse is a significant problem. As you said, the fact that we cannot ask a dog how it is feeling or how it feels after we have used physical force means that we should rule this out entirely. And I agree that why should anyone want to use physical force when a gentle method gets better results and is, above all, kinder and more humane?

    I think the overarching question is do we have the right to punish at all? I realize that is a large, philsophical question that might seem like an empirical dodge. But I think it is a question we should be asking ourselves and it relates to the semantic problem you rightly point out. If “punishment” is suppression of a behaviour that is dangerous and can cause harm not only to another person, ourselves or the dog, it should be suppressed (and we should be clear on what suppression is). But if punishment means that we employ methods that fit within Webster’s definition then we have no right to punish, it is simply abuse.

    What concerns me always is the nature of the power relationship. If we punish dogs by abusing them then they lose twice. First, they are hurt and harmed. They suffer. Then, to make matters worse, if they become aggressive they are often abandoned and euthanized. Our responsibility as caregivers and guardians means that we must always be thinking about the short-term and long-term outcome of our choices and methods. And this is why I have so much respect for what you are doing.

  2. I DO use punishment, I use Negative Punishment, usually the loss of freedom, the loss of the ability to work or the loss of a chance to earn a reinforcer. And when I do use it (at least in a training situation), within a matter of seconds to a minute or two I offer the dog the chance to perform a behavior that CAN be rewarded. I personally prefer to teach a dog what TO do rather than what NOT to do.

  3. That is interesting. I once read in a book by Karen Pryor, that she believed turning your back on a dog who is jumping on you was extremely emotionally painfully for that dog and there fore just as cruel as any physical punishment. Again it points to teaching the dog what you want him to do instead. Causing unnecessary Emotional pain is abuse just like physical pain. I think we have to be careful we are not causing emotional pain just because we are not using physical punishment.

    • In Karen Pryor’s resources, she has writers who specifically tell people to “turn their back” and “be a tree” and “ignore the dog.”
      I have not seen any research showing an increase in aggression or stress levels. Of course, you absolutely want a strong foundation of alternate behaviours reinforced before using a timeout too!
      If you do get research, send it my way.
      The only thing I’ve ever been able to find is the parenting by Diane Baumrind research which shows a combination of positive reinforcement and kind structures and boundaries are the most effective strategies. In otherwords, not permissive and not painful.

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