I’m writing this article to talk about something I don’t hear people talking about enough. It’s intensely personal for me, but I think it needs to be said. It’s about the frustrations of training and why we punish our dogs.
Most animal behavior science points towards positive reinforcement as the “best” way to train animals. By best, I mean that it lacks the risks of learned helplessness, fear, pain, and aggression produced by punitive training techniques. Animals are able to quickly learn what we want from them when we pay them for it.
But I’m not writing this article to try to sell you on the idea of positive reinforcement training.
Why We Punish Our Dogs: Exploring Realities
All too often, I hear trainers talking about punishment based training techniques as cruel and outdated, only used by sadists and the ignorant.
I personally don’t believe that’s true. There are many reasons why we punish our dogs.
In my experience, there are two big categories of punishment used by well-meaning owners, either because they’re frustrated or because they think their dog is dominant. Not sadists and the ignorant.
Here, a well-meaning owner follows the advice of the internet or professional trainer and uses punishment in a learned and methodical manner to train – often from balanced dog trainers. Positive punishment based training can work – but it can also lead to fallout. That’s just one of the reasons that I don’t use it or endorse it.
They may or may not feel comfortable with using prong/choke/shock collars, leash corrections, and other punitive techniques to train their dog. They might or might not get results. Who knows if they understand what they’re doing on a technical behavioral level.
These owners are likely to be willing to change over to positive reinforcement based training if they’re given good information on the benefits of other training techniques. I think that most positive reinforcement dog trainers focus on this group when they try to win people over to their “side.”
Many of these owners don’t know what other options exist for dog training. They were told to use a prong collar to fix pulling or a shock collar to teach a dog to come. Why would they do any differently?
Reactionary (or Emotional) Punishment
Here, an also well-meaning owner uses punishment when they’re frustrated with their dog. They probably are getting even worse results because their punishment is emotional instead of methodical.
This is the category that I fall into. Yes, me. A professional animal trainer who has never suggested that my clients punish their dogs. Heck, it’s part of my brand that I’ll never ask you to do that.
I know better than to lose my temper with my dog. But that does not mean I’m perfect. I slip up every now and again. You don’t have to be perfect in order to be a great trainer. You just need to keep striving for improvement – in yourself and your dog.
But dogs can be frustrating. I have treat pouches, clickers, and treats galore. I was never taught that I should punish my dog and frankly I don’t really know how to do it correctly to get results.
But there are days where I yell, scream, and cry. There are days where I find myself reaching out to swat my dog in a blinding flash of frustration.
And you know what? I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I have anger issues. And I don’t think dog trainers talk enough about this aspect of why we punish our dogs. Dealing with demanding dogs, over-excited greeters, reactive dogs, or even dogs that are aggressive towards children can all be exhausting, draining, and frustrating.
Owners who fall into this category might “get” positive reinforcement training. I sure as heck do. I spend 60 hours a week working on it in one way or another. But I still struggle to practice what I preach at times. It’s only human (but that doesn’t mean I can’t change it).
Guilt and the Feeling of Failure
Whenever I slip up and punish Barley, my sensitive border collie, the guilt is as intense as the frustration.
I often cry and slide to the floor, only crying harder as he crawls into my lap and licks my face. He’s scared and trying to appease me, and that makes me feel guiltier.
What have I done? Why did I do that to him? I’ve failed my dog. It’s awful.
I think this is an aspect of training – and maybe mental health – that needs to come out.
There’s no single answer to why we punish our dogs. Not everyone who punishes does it because they were taught incorrectly. They don’t do it because they’re ignorant or evil. Some do it because they’re frustrated or upset or tired or angry.
Owners who struggle with reactionary punishment may have a treat pouch on their hip and books like Don’t Shoot The Dog on their shelves already. They might be sold to the idea of positive reinforcement training already – or they might not. But today I want to focus on the former set of owners. The ones who are sold on positive reinforcement, but struggle with frustration.
Where Did I Go Wrong?
So how does this happen? How does a person like myself who started out training free-flight birds (punishment is notoriously useless here) end up slipping up with punishment? It’s not like I was ever taught to “give corrections” and have never subscribed to alpha or dominance or pack theory. So I don’t need education in the way most trainers provide it. I don’t need convincing. I need more tools in my toolkit.
Let’s explore two incredible insights I’ve had over 2017 about why we punish our dogs:
Punishment starts where knowledge ends.
This quote changed my life. It came from a podcast episode from Ryan Cartlidge’s Animal Training Academy where he interviewed Louise Ginman. It was a mind-blown sort of moment.
If you want your dog to stop barking, screaming “NO!” and swatting him with a newspaper will likely get him to stop in the moment. You might not want to scare or hurt your dog, but you don’t know what else to do.
How do I stop my dog from barking? You wonder.
In this case, I’d do a few things. I’d try to figure out why the dog is barking. What’s going on that causes the annoying behavior? I’d then reframe the question.
Don’t ask, “How do I stop my dog from barking?” Instead, ask, “What do I want my dog to do when X happens instead of barking? How do I train him to do that instead?”
Some research on the internet using these questions is much more likely to point you towards positive training techniques. You might not even need a trainer once you reframe the problem (but if you do, I’m here for you).
Acknowledging what you don’t know and searching for a better way to solve problems will help you reduce frustration and stay on track as a force-free trainer and owner.
This sums up the many of my own training struggles. So yes, I’m a trainer admitting that I don’t know everything. A lack of knowledge is a big reason why we punish our dogs. It’s not always that owners aren’t sold on training techniques. It’s that they don’t know the right exercises, drills, and management techniques to succeed.
Punishment is reinforcing for the punisher.
This really hit home for me while reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman about his work with longtime partner Amos Tversky.
Hang on, this gets technical.
They discuss the case of Israeli fighter pilot instructors who scold their students after a poor performance. On the next go around, the students do better. The instructors were therefore being rewarded for punishing their students.
The psychologists try to get the pilots to use praise instead of scolding to teach – their research showed this was the better way to learn. The instructors returned to the psychologists and explain that when they praise the students, they perform worse the next time around instead of better.
This is a tricky concept known as regression to the mean. Imagine this. One in ten performances is nearly perfect, the other nine are less than perfect. So if you praise the one that’s nearly perfect, the next performance is statistically likely to be worse!
Punishment does the inverse. Remember, the next performance after an exceptional one (good OR bad) is likely to be closer to “normal.” That means a super-bad performance will likely be followed by a better one. That’s why the fighter pilot instructors thought punishment worked!
Your praise or punishment wasn’t the key here – it was the fact that most performances will be unremarkably good (worse than nearly perfect) and unremarkably bad (better than awful).
Over time, praise should help increase the 1 in 10 awesome performances to more like 3 in 10 or even 9 in 10! But in the moment, it looks to people unfamiliar with this concept like punishment is working while praise is making things worse. Zoom out to the big picture, and you should see real trendlines.
Why We Punish Our Dogs: My Own Experience
Where do I get frustrated with my own dog and slip up? It’s usually in one of 3 cases:
- Knowledge: I simply don’t know how to fix the problem I’m dealing with. I often spend hours after my slipups researching how to actually properly address a situation. I talk to other trainers and consult reputable online sources. This comes into play for me with really incessant behaviors – like Barley’s unending fetch mania.
- Mental State: I’m just plain tired and cranky. Some days, I come home and am just not in a good place mentally for dealing with my irritatingly happy and enthusiastic dog. God help owners who deal with dogs with major behavior issues like reactivity. I love him to death, but his very best traits still piss me off when I’m already in a bad place. This one really can affect me at or right after work, where I spend my days being nail-raked by hyperactive adolescent pit bulls.
- Speed: The techniques I’m using are not creating results fast enough. This doesn’t happen to me often, but it’s a common one I hear from my clients. For me, my struggle is not when I’m in my zen training mode. It’s when I’m turned off but my dog is still not pretending to be some perfect floor fixture. But for owners struggling with demand barking, leash pulling, or reactivity, it’s easy to get frustrated. Positive reinforcement works – and is faster when you follow some simple guidelines . But training is not instantaneous, and that’s frustrating.
There are plenty of reasons why we punish our dogs. And again, it’s not always because we’re ignorant or evil.
We just work long days and come home to an exuberant dog. We’re tired, irritated, and that training protocol of “go to your bed” is not working yet. In an instinctive reaction, we knee our dog in the chest when our dog jumps.
I get it. We’ve all been there, we just don’t talk about it enough.
Human Frustration Tolerance
We talk constantly about impulse control and frustration tolerance in our dogs. But what about in ourselves? I believe a lack of frustration tolerance is why we punish our dogs.
I’m still working on this myself. Barley is my first dog and I’ve only been a professional trainer since 2013. Graduating college has been a bumpy ride for me emotionally and I’m still learning a lot. But here’s what I’ve been trying to do to reduce my own frustration in animal training.
Meditate, do yoga, get outside, and exercise.
If you’re blissed out and zen, it’ll be easier to be patient with your dog. Do whatever you need to do – without your dog. Taking care of yourself makes taking care of your dog much easier.
I love the Pacifica app to help with mediation, goal-setting, self-care, and immediate calm down exercises. Avoid frustration with your dog by making yourself feel better overall.
Make a list of your “triggers.”
Educate yourself on fixing them in yourself and your dog. Know why we punish our dogs! Remember, punishment starts where knowledge ends.
Use your failure as a way to learn. What are the antecedents to your own outbursts? Is it when you try to walk your dog before morning coffee and you’re a total zombie? Is it if your dog barks at the door while you’re on the phone? What’s going on when your mind goes blank and you forget everything you know about training?
If you know the situations that you struggle with, you can work to manage or avoid them. If it’s specific behaviors that you struggle with, you can also start to educate yourself on how to change them in your dog.
Use the framework outlined in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I identify my triggers (Barley barks at the door), my reaction (yelling), and the consequence (Barley stops barking). I decide on a replacement behavior for me. Instead of yelling when Barley barks in order to get him to shut up, I plan to call him to me and engage him with something other than barking. The antecedent and consequence remain the same (Barley barks, Barley stops barking), but my action in the middle changes. Read more on this tactic here.
Keep track of the good days.
I put faces on the calendar instead of crossing them out. A smile means that I had a good day, and frown is a bad day.
At the end of the month, I put this into a spreadsheet and I can see how my daily moods are on the up and up over time. Nerdy, yes. Effective, also yes!
It’s hard to see through your own failure or frustration sometimes, but if you keep track as you work to implement fixes, you’ll see the smiley faces add up.
Many of my clients keep a training journal for their dogs. That way, they can look back on early sessions and see how far they and their dogs have come!
If you get frustrated in the middle of training sessions, take a break. Play tug with your dog, cuddle, or go drink a cup of tea before resuming.
If you’re tense, your dog likely knows it. They might not perform their best, which might make you even more frustrated!
Almost none of the dogs that I work with in my shelter job walk well on leash. Some pull so hard that I’m sore at the end of work, others take the leash in their jaws and try to play tug. It’s exhausting! I take frequent breaks in between working on dogs at work so that I don’t get too frustrated with any one dog. I also try to work with the toughest dogs of the day first, when my patience reserves are freshest.
Have fun with your dog.
Remember why you brought home your dog? Me, too. I wanted a dog.
And dogs fart, eat things they shouldn’t, bark, shed, pull on leash, track mud into the house, chase tiny mammals, and usually have fun doing things we wish they wouldn’t do.
Work on fixing the things that bug you, but remember to have fun!
Some days I don’t train Barley at all. We just go for a run or hike and play some frisbee. I let him sneak onto the couch and feed him from my plate. He’s a dog, that’s why I love him. Letting loose helps us both reset and shake off any tension from training or perceived failures.
Accept your dog for who he is.
Strive for improvement in yourself, your dog, and your training. But don’t let that come at the cost of losing track of the love you feel for your dog. Take into account your dog’s history, genetics, and personality to create realistic but ambitious goals. Help improve his motivation by exploring ways to make him want to work for you.
The bottom line is, there many reasons why we punish our dogs. For people who feel that they “know better,” the guilt from punishing their dog can be intense. We need to focus on taking care of ourselves so we can take care of our dogs.
If you’re struggling with frustration with your dog, feel free to schedule a Skype session with me. I’d be happy to talk to you about your training program, your frustrations, and ways to improve both!
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.