Disciplining Your Dog the Right Way

Pic courtesy of animalhospitalofpolaris.wordpress.com

Pic courtesy of animalhospitalofpolaris.wordpress.com

The term “negative punishment” sounds vaguely disturbing.  Both words have such poor connotations it’s hard to believe we should all be striving to use more, not less negative punishment when it comes to training dogs and cats, but that is exactly the case.

First let’s take a look at the opposing form of discipline — positive punishment or the administration of an unpleasant stimulus in response to bad behavior. Here is a classic example of positive punishment:

Hercules is a 2 ½ month old puppy who likes to play rough. His teeth are needle-sharp, and when he gets overly excited he tends to playbite hard enough to break the skin. His owners have tried to stop the behavior by yelling at him and even swatting him on the butt with a rolled up newspaper but it only seems to rile him up more. Now he will sometimes growl at them when they try to correct his playbiting.

The problem with positive punishment is that has to be delivered in exactly the right way for it to be effective, which frankly, most of us cannot do on a regular basis. To work, positive punishment needs to be unpleasant enough to stop the behavior but not so unpleasant that it invokes fear, pain, or aggression. Positive punishment should also never be used when an animal is reacting out of fear. Given the fact that when frustrated, we tend to react without thinking things through, it’s not too surprising that the chances of our using positive punishment correctly are slim.

On the other hand, negative punishment involves removing something of value as a consequence of bad behavior. An example of negative punishment in Hercules’s example would be for his owners to walk away and ignore him when he playbites. By doing so, they have taken a much desired resource (attention) away from him. With consistency, Hercules will soon figure out that whenever he bites playtime stops. Animals are quite good at making correlations. Once the bite-no-play connection is made in Hercules’s mind, he’ll stop the former to continue the latter.

One of the reasons we should all be relying primarily on negative rather than positive punishment is that when we make a mistake, for example Hercules’s owner thinks he’s about to playbite but he actually picks up the ball that she didn’t notice was lying next to her hand, the consequences aren’t nearly as dire. There’s no taking back the yell or swat once you realize you were wrong, but with negative punishment, you can always apologize and give back what you’ve taken away.

I want to end this discussion on how to punish bad behavior with a reminder that praising good behavior is just as, if not even more, important. Our companion animals crave attention. In their minds, interacting with you even when you’re angry is better than being ignored. Next time you catch your dog or cat being good, make sure he knows how happy he has made you and watch that behavior take hold.

Article contributions: Dr. Jennifer Coates writing for PetMD

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Posted by on March 30, 2014. Filed under CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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5 Responses to Disciplining Your Dog the Right Way

  1. James Smith

    March 30, 2014 at 7:57 am

    When I was learning to teach my young dog Bogart basic manners, the trainer I hired told me to never hit your dog. That would be a betrayal of the trust you want the pet to have in you.

    Instead she told me to use a method the dog should already know and understand. Take the dog by the scruff of the neck and give it a sharp shake while saying “No” in a firm voice.” This is how the female dogs discipline their young and it might even be a genetic memory in them.

    She (the trainer) said to take care not to shake them so hard it injures their neck or actually rattles their brain or permanent damage can result. One quick, firm shake is enough.

    I have never heard of this but it has worked with Bogart and subsequent dogs.

    • Betje Aalders

      April 1, 2014 at 8:17 am

      You should not need be told not to hit your dog! Why you hitting your dog? So you now prefer grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and shaking it??!! You should not be allowed a dog

      • Michael John Scott

        April 1, 2014 at 8:28 am

        I don’t understand. No one in the article is talking about hitting a dog, or grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. Did you read the article?

      • Norman Rampart

        April 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm

        Mother dogs carry their young by the scruff – as do cats – and grab their pups scruff to chastise them and teach them – as do cats.

        Use your dogs scruff to teach it. That way it will learn in a gentle way it recognises.

        You’re not all there are you Betje love?

        • Michael John Scott

          April 2, 2014 at 6:18 pm

          LOL. He/she is from the Netherlands, but likely has his/her heart in the right place there old Norman, despite the inability to quite express him/herself.