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. The answer, as it turns out, isn't simple! 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. The infographic pictured above shows the steps a trainer should use when treating a dog, starting with wellness and using punishment only once the other steps have already been taken.

Once a dog has been cleared by a vet and I am certain that he is not suffering from any physical or mental health problems, the next step is always to manage 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" 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 build confidence.

Punishment (scientifically speaking, I am referring to "positive punishment" here) is simply when you add something to the dog's environment that makes him less likely to perform a behavior in the future. For instance, a person can punish a dog by adding a slippery surface to an area where he normally likes to zoom around. The word "punishment" should not be associated with barbaric methods, pain, suffering, or trauma. While punishment can be misused and often is by misinformed trainers, it is simply a tool and every behaviorist should know how to use it properly and judiciously. The LIMA approach that I take means that punishment is selected as a treatment only as a last resort, and is never my go-to option right off the bat. 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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