A lot of the questions clients ask me are to do with stopping unwanted behaviour. There are
two ways to change behaviour in dogs –
Punishment: something that decreases the likelihood of unwanted behaviour being repeated
due to an unpleasant consequence.
Reinforcement: increasing the likelihood of good behaviour being repeated due to a nice
Punishment can often be seen to have quicker results but it also comes with a number of
First we need to look at what is punishing to a dog. Punishments can range from ignoring or
taking away attention to the use of a shock collar. What do we mean by aversive punishment?
It is simply something that causes avoidance of a behaviour through the use of unpleasant
stimuli. So in this sense even ignoring or timing out your dog is unpleasant, in particular with
dogs that suffer from separation anxiety. The impact of the aversive is dependant on the dog
it is being applied to and this in itself can cause unexpected consequences. Here are some
examples of aversive punishments:
sharp lead corrections
hitting or kicking
electric shock collar
submissive down or alpha roll
threatening stares or growls
use of water sprays or air cans
grabbing by the scruff or jowls and shaking.
I am sure we can all see why these methods would discourage a dog from performing a
behaviour. Think of having these techniques applied to you because you had misunderstood
or done something that somebody else didn't like? In this regard using aversive punishment
can be very effecting in stopping unwanted behaviour but it can also have a great deal of
side effects and even effect a dogs welfare.
The punishment may not always be consistent or start to become bearable for the dog in
order for him to get what he wants – A dog that still pulls on the leash to get to exciting smells
even when the owner performs leash corrections.
Aggressive methods, things that cause pain and/or fear encourage an aggressive or
defensive reaction from a dog.
A dog may make an unwanted, negative association with the stimuli surrounding the
correction or just learn to shut down.
Aversive methods can be reinforcing to the person applying them.
Aversive can create anxiety and fear in dogs and they can generalize this to similar stimuli –
eg shake cans and loud noises.
Can interfere with a dogs ability to learn as the dog shuts down, this will also impact on the
owners relationship with the dog.
The defensive behaviour created by aversive method is difficult to reverse as it works for the
dog. Snapping at something it is fearful of or that might cause it pain will make it go away.
Causes stress in dogs. A minimal level of stress in dogs or humans is useful for learning but
when this is increased as with the desire to avoid the punishment it can become a big barrier
When an unwanted behaviour is suppressed through punishment, a dog will find a new way
to fill this void, and this may well be with another undesirable behaviour. Eg a dog is punished
for digging in the garden. He is still bored. So he starts to chew things instead.
Suppressing behaviours that are there as a warning or out of a reaction to something.
Barking due to a fear reaction to other dogs for example, may well cause a dog to escalate
the behaviour as the emotion behind the reaction is still present.
Rewarding a positive alternative carries much less of a risk and is much more likely to
encourage a cooperative leaning experience for dog and owner.
Kerry Walker - Behaviour Counsellor