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A Closer Look at Punishment

Private dog training

As a positive trainer, I make positive reinforcement a part of my overall training protocol. I find it very rewarding to figure out what motivates each dog and use that motivation to help the dog learn. Figuring this out makes training fun and rewarding for me as well.

Unfortunately, many trainers still use positive punishment. For some trainers, this is their training method of choice. For others, they are what we refer to as “blended trainers” which means they will primarily use positive reinforcement but will resort to positive punishment as needed. Understanding what punishment means and how it leads to poor outcomes is crucial. Understanding the benefits and effectiveness of positive reinforcement can lead to more effective training and a solid relationship with your dog.

Positive vs. Negative Punishment

It’s important to understand the difference between positive and negative punishment. Positive punishment means you are adding something (in this case, something undesirable to the recipient) to decrease a behavior in the future. An example would be using a shock collar whenever a dog barks at another dog. The shock is being added to decrease the barking in the future.

Negative punishment, on the other hand, means you are taking something away (in this case, something desirable to the recipient) to decrease a behavior in the future. An example would be to turn your back on a dog every time they jump on you. By taking away your attention, you want a decrease in jumping in the future. I often do this with specific behaviors, such as jumping and barking. A common mantra of training is “ignore what you don’t want, reinforce what you do want.”

Many will defend the use of positive punishment in training, while trainers like me avoid it. Even those who defend positive punishment do not always realize it is not being administered effectively.

The Science Behind Positive Punishment

Many do not realize that to be effective, positive punishment must be applied under a specific set of criteria. Here are a few of those criteria:


The punishment must occur each time the behavior is exhibited. Have you ever gotten a ticket for speeding? I bet you still speed. If you knew you would be ticketed every time you were to speed, most likely the behavior of speeding would be extinguished.  But, because you are rarely ticketed, you keep speeding. It’s the same with using positive punishment in training.


Different dogs will respond differently to the punishment, depending on the nature and intensity. And how do we know what level is appropriate? If the punishment is not harsh enough, it will mean nothing to the dog. If it’s too harsh, the dog may appear to have learned better behavior, but more often than not the dog has shut down. This is not a good outcome for your dog or your relationship with your dog.


The recipient needs to have a clear understanding of why they are receiving the punishment. Too many things can go wrong here. If you use the shock collar whenever the dog barks at another dog, the dog is not learning anything. The more likely scenario is the physical discomfort and anxiety from the shock will result in the dog having an even stronger negative reaction to other dogs, which will exacerbate the situation.

A Better Alternative

Think about yourself in various situations in your life. Whether or are working to make a living or dealing with a stressful situation, what will help you be more effective in those situations? A manager or friend who stresses you out or someone who offers support and collaboration. In either of these situations, a positive outcome is contingent on your making better choices. The same works for a dog’s behavior. A dog will quickly realize, “If I make a good choice, I get something good. If I make a poor choice, I get nothing good, and/or something good will be taken away.”

When we talk about socializing a puppy, we emphasize helping the pup develop a positive association with various stimuli in their environment. By making it a positive experience, we want to avoid the dog developing fear around specific stimuli, thereby decreasing the development of aggressive behavior. Why should this change when we talk about getting better behavior when the dog is learning new skills or is doing something we don’t want them to do?

When looking for a trainer, look for a trainer who uses positive methods. Your dog will thank you for it. It will ultimately make your life easier as well!