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Punishment in Animal Training

This article examines the growing body of research indicating that reward-based training, and the subsequent absence of stress, anxiety, pain, force, and fear, may improve an animal’s ability to learn; and that aversive training techniques can have adverse effects on a dog’s behavior


Sad German shepherd dog lying down
States Overall (2017): “Consider the universe told you that everything you did was wrong. That’s what punishment does.” © Can Stock Photo / DragoNika



By Susan Nilson and Niki Tudge


The United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006), defines corporal or physical punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light…Physical punishment may involve hitting…children with the hand or with an implement…but it can also involve, for example, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion (for example, washing children’s mouths out with soap or forcing them to swallow hot spices).

“Nonphysical forms of punishment that are cruel and degrading and thus incompatible with the Convention include, for example, punishment which belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares or ridicules the child.” The Committee views corporal punishment as “invariably degrading.” (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2006).


Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment is now banned from schools in 66 percent of all countries (131 out of 198) worldwide and 54 countries have prohibited the practice in all settings (e.g. day care, penal institutions), including the home (Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2018).

According to Gershoff and Font (2016), in the United States, “corporal punishment is currently legal in 19 states,” although the “prevalence of school corporal punishment has been on a steady decline since the late 1970s.” They state that, according to research, corporal punishment is “not effective” at teaching children how to behave and that, “the more children receive corporal punishment, the more likely they are to be aggressive and to misbehave over time.”

They also cite research by Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor (2016) that has found corporal punishment is “associated with unintended negative consequences” for children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that “adults caring for children use healthy forms of discipline, such as positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, setting limits, redirecting, and setting future expectations. The AAP recommends that parents do not use spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating, or shaming.” (Sege & Siegel, 2018).


Punishment in Animal Training

Increasingly, research in the field of animal behavior reflects this.

Herron, Shofer and Reisner (2009) state that “reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog, and, hence, safer for the owner.”

Rooney and Cowan (2011) suggest high levels of punishment may have “adverse effects upon a dog’s behaviour whilst reward based training may improve a dog’s subsequent ability to learn.”

Deldalle and Gaunet (2014) found that “using a negative reinforcement–based method demonstrated lowered body postures and signals of stress, whereas dogs from the school using a positive reinforcement–based method showed increased attentiveness toward their owner.”

Ziv (2017) conducted a review of the scientific literature on the effects of various canine training methods and summarized that methods using punishment, fear and pain jeopardize both the physical and mental health of the pet.

He concludes that “there is no evidence to suggest that aversive training methods are more effective than reward-based training methods. At least three studies in this review suggest that the opposite might be true in both pets and working dogs (Blackwell, Bolster, Richards, Loftus & Casey, 2012; Haverbeke, Laporte, Depiereux, Giffroy & Diederich, 2008; Hiby, Rooney & Bradshaw, 2004). Because this appears to be the case, it is recommended that the dog training community embrace reward-based training and avoid, as much as possible, training methods that include aversion.”

States Overall (2017): “Consider the universe told you that everything you did was wrong. That’s what punishment does. Take the individual responses and then punish the dog until he gets the right answer. Consider, instead, telling dogs what’s right and when their decision is taking them away from the right answer. To change behavior, you must script a detailed path to success. Telling someone what will not work or is not desired is of minimal utility in a world of a million choices, and 999,999 of them will be wrong…

“Remember, fear is an individual response and what’s punishing or a punisher must be considered in terms of the recipient, so while ‘fear’ is not in the definition of punishment, it may be one of the effects of punishment. How many of you have never asked a question in your life? That is what we expect dogs to do.”


Outdated Approach

Despite the growing body of scientific research to the contrary, the “dominance” approach is one that some still elect to use in animal training and behavior modification, specifically with regards to dogs and horses. The underlying philosophy of so-called dominance theory in its application to pet dogs is, at best, outdated, at worst, impacts negatively the entire approach educated pet professionals should be taking.

The theory of dominance in dogs “originated from work conducted several decades ago. According to Miller (2018), ‘[t]he erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel (1947), in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf. Schenkel’s observations of captive wolf behavior were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior, and then to domestic dogs.’” (Bradley, 2019).

The idea that humans should be exerting physical control over animals was first widely popularized in the 1970s in the book, How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete, which recommended the infamous alpha roll to deal with undesired behaviors.


Alpha Roll

The alpha roll, in which a human flips a dog onto his back and pins him until he shows “submissive” behaviors, was founded on 1960s studies of captive wolves kept in an area too small for their numbers and composed of members that would not naturally be found together in a pack in the wild. These conditions resulted in increased numbers of conflicts in which one wolf would appear to pin another wolf.

However, current scientific knowledge has recanted the findings of these studies, acknowledging that this behavior is not typical of wolves living in the wild (Mech, 1999).

Despite these findings and the great disparity in behavior between wolves and dogs, dominance theory became applied to pet dogs, popularized, and remains a widely-propagated training style today, even though it is an “obsolete and aversive method of interacting with animals that has at its foundation incorrect and misinterpreted data which can result in damage to the animal-human relationship and cause behavioral problems in the animal.” (Pet Professional Guild, 2018).

But in the 21st century, can there really still be any debate over the issue of using pain and fear as “methods” of animal training?

Research has already given us the good news that, no, we do not need to use any training or behavior modification protocols that utilize escape or avoidance behavior, or that cause fear or pain.

Instead, we can reference the growing body of knowledge and findings from the scientific community which advocate for humane, positive reinforcement-based protocols. Such protocols are known to promote a positive emotional state and therefore improve an animal’s ability to learn new things. In addition, they set an animal up for success, build his confidence, allow him to think for himself, and empower him to make good choices (O’Heare, 2011).


Devices Intended to Startle

Unfortunately, the concept of dominance and the perceived need to have total control over one’s pets has evolved into a range of commercially available tools and equipment designed to stop, prevent, or punish pets for behaviors their owners deem unnecessary, unacceptable or simply annoying.

As an example, in the marketplace, one can find so-called pet correction devices. These are simply aversive stimuli intended for pet care, management, or training by eliciting a “startle response,” and/or an alarm reaction. Ramirez-

Ramirez-Moreno and Sejnowski (2012) define the startle response as a “largely unconscious defensive response to sudden or threatening stimuli, such as sudden noise or sharp movement” that is “associated with negative affect.” This equipment, through its design and intended application, operates using fear as motivation. (Pet Professional Guild, 2018).

It is promoted and sold to prevent barking, jumping up, growling, or any other problematic behavior. This approach is not, however, advisable because using the startle response to correct behavior can be perceived as highly threatening by a pet and quickly create fear.

A fearful response may then not only be directed toward the specific piece of equipment, but also to the operator or any other stimulus that happens to be present at that time, e.g. another person or animal.

Fear, if left unchecked, can progress to all out aggression, a problematic behavior for all concerned. The startle response (or aversive reflex) is “enhanced during a fear state and is diminished in a pleasant emotional context.” (Lang, Bradley & Cuthbert, 1990).


Learned Aggression

Fear-based aggression is a case of “learned aggression that happens when an animal…experiences intense fear combined with an inability to escape it with fight-or-flight-style behavior…The first time a dog growls, snaps, or bites out of fear, it is often a last-ditch resort. But man, does it work. The scary animal or person backs off, and this serves as a reward, making aggressive responses more likely when the dog feels fear in the future. The real problem is fear aggression is so self-reinforcing—it almost always makes the scary thing go away—that dogs…start to use it in instrumental, preventative ways rather than as reactions to truly threatening stimuli.” (Wood, 2016).

As an example, using an aversive sound such as an air horn to interrupt barking risks pairing the owner or trainer with the unpleasant stimulus and, in particular, the hand or arm that is in motion while using the tool. Repeated instances may generalize to the pet attempting to flee.

But if the pet believes that flight is not possible and/or not a safe or reliable course of action, he may instead conclude that he has no other alternative to protect himself than to exhibit aggressive behaviors toward the arm or hand movement, the individual making the movement, any other stimulus present in the environment at the time, or any approach behavior.


Nothing Shocking about Shock

Some owners or trainers elect to subject their pets to learning via the application of electric shock, which works through escape and avoidance learning. Let’s think about that for a moment. A pet is placed in a situation where he learns to exhibit an “acceptable” behavior by the presentation and removal of a scary or painful stimulus, i.e. an electric shock.

This uses both positive punishment and negative reinforcement, principles of operant conditioning that work at opposite ends of a continuum.

To break it down further, the pet is punished through the application of positive punishment (i.e. the addition of an aversive stimulus), and as soon as he offers a more acceptable behavior in order to escape or avoid the scary or painful stimulus, the stimulus is then removed by the trainer (negative reinforcement, i.e. the removal of the aversive stimulus).


Escape/Avoid Learning

Let’s look at an example of escape learning. Say a dog is running in a different direction to his owner and the owner/trainer applies the shock stimulus while shouting, “Come.”

The dog will be startled and may stop or begin to move back toward the owner/trainer. When the dog does this, the owner/trainer stops applying the shock so the dog learns that by running back toward the owner, the pain can be removed (i.e. the shock is removed).

In other words, the dog learns that he can escape the aversive stimulus by engaging in a different behavior. In the case of avoidance behavior, it is exactly as it sounds: a dog learns how to avoid a painful or scary stimulus.

With a shock containment system, such as an electric, or “invisible” fence, the dog learns to stop moving forward toward the boundary when he hears the warning beep. If he proceeds, then he will receive an electric shock.

As in the previous example, the goal of his behavior is to avoid the fear and pain this will cause. His learning has taken place from being shocked and, therefore, getting hurt, while his new behavior is reinforced by fear as he works to avoid the beeping.

The result of this is a dog who has been contained in his own area, his supposed safe haven, through fear and/or pain. (Tudge, 2009).

The key difference between escape and avoidance learning is this: In escape learning, the dog’s behavior allows him to escape the electric shock, whereas in avoidance learning, his behavior avoids the onset of the shock altogether.

In both instances, the learning is based on fear. In the case of the “invisible” fence, the beep on the boundary system comes before the shock is delivered. Due to his conditioning history (i.e. learning and experience), the dog has learned that the beep predicts a painful electric shock if his current behavior continues. He will aim to avoid this at all costs. (Tudge, 2009).


In “Defense” of Punishment

This is the science behind why a dog, when shown a newspaper or spray bottle, will cease to exhibit the problem behavior.

It is why we hear unsuspecting pet owners, in defense of positive punishment, make statements like, “My dog never gets shocked, or sprayed or hit anymore. As soon as he sees me grab the antibark, shock or spray collar, bottle or newspaper, he stops what he’s doing.”

They do not realize that fear is now preventing the behavior, because the piece of equipment has been paired with pain in the past. As a result, the behavior has been suppressed due to fear and or anxiety, but no preferable replacement behavior has been taught.

As such, the pet is not being trained, just punished. Fear or anxiety then result in the expression “of a range of adaptive or defensive behaviors, which are aimed at escaping from the source of danger or motivational conflict. These behaviors depend on the context and the repertoire of the species.” (Steimer, 2002, p.28).

Increasingly, peer reviewed, scientific studies show, whether discussing dogs, humans, dolphins or elephants, that shock as a form of training to teach or correct a behavior is ineffective at best and physically and psychologically damaging at worst (Schilder & van der Borg, 2004; Schalke, Stichnoth, Ott, & Jones-Baade, 2007; Polsky, 2010; Cooper, Cracknell, Hardiman, Wright & Mills, 2014).


The Five Freedoms

Overall (2013) states that shock collars, aka e-collars, “violate the principles of three of five freedoms that define adequate welfare for animals: Freedom from pain, injury, and disease, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.”

The freedoms Overall refers to are Brambell’s (1965) Five Freedoms, which have been a standard for assessing animal welfare since 1965.

Applying an electric shock to an animal via any system or any other pain-inflicting device provides no effective strategy for him to learn a new or alternative behavior; it simply inflicts pain and risks making him fearful, anxious and/or aggressive.

Evidence indicates that, rather than speeding up the learning process, electronic stimulation devices slow it down, place great stress on the animal, can result in both short- and long-term psychological damage, and lead to fearful, anxious and/or aggressive behavior.

State Masson et al. (2018): “E-collars are not recommended for the treatment of behavior problems because they do not take into consideration the root cause of the problems. Such lack of redress can result in problems worsening, being masked or expressed in other ways (e.g., in the case of e-collar use to stop barking in separation-related problems, if barking is suppressed, dogs can develop other behaviors such as destructiveness or compulsive/obsessive-compulsive disorders)…

“Pain directly triggers aggression (Polsky, 1994), but additionally, the use of aversive techniques can worsen any negative associations (e.g., the trainer) by which a dog already feels threatened. Finally, using shocks to punish warning signals of aggression, such as growling or baring teeth, can lead to a suppression of these, so the dog in the future may attack without overt warning, resulting in apparent unpredictability and increasing the risk of injury (Overall, 2013).”



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