Imagine being a child, taken away from your family by a huge giant and put into a new home with new surroundings.
There are other giants there but none of them speak your language.
And, to make matters worse, they don’t even communicate in the same way so you have no idea what they are trying to tell you.
They are shoving a biscuit in your face and throwing their arms about, what do they want you to do?
You jump up, thinking that might be what they are asking for, but they get angry, frustrated and then they smack you hard on the nose.
What did you do wrong?
This is the reality for a young puppy, taken home by its new owner for the first time - especially if their new companions are not willing to give them the time and patience that all young pups need. They do not speak the same language as us and they do not communicate in the same way, so why do we expect them to be able to know exactly what we want them to do?
When writing an article for the Guernsey Press in 2016 on dog training, I wanted to find a way to summarise just how confusing life can be for a pup or an older dog. Of course, none of us really know what goes on in those hugely intelligent brains of theirs, however, we do know that they don’t come readily prepared with an English language setting button, or indeed any other human language button. So why do we see it as fair to use physical punishment?
When we talk about punishment there are two types – positive punishment and negative punishment. These terms are quite confusing but, essentially, positive punishment is the act of adding an aversive stimulus during punishment – the stimuli being unpleasant and therefore induces a change in behaviour. Negative punishment is the act of taking something away that the subject wants to act as a punishment i.e a time out, which removes attention. A physical punishment is a positive punishment.
The use of punishment in dog training or behaviourism is subject to much debate and there are parties that believe strongly in favour of positive punishment and others who believe in only using reward and positive reinforcement methods. It has been an area that I have taken great interest in and after studying the matter at length in recent years, it is one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a behaviourist. I do feel strongly against the use of positive punishment and, in particular, physical corrections. There are a number of reasons why I have this belief, for which I will explain, but primarily it is because I am concerned about the welfare of the dogs that live within our society.
While positive punishment is a natural part of dogs’ behaviour towards others, we need to remind ourselves that we are a different species. As I have already pointed out, we do not speak the same language and we do not communicate in the same way. Only those who have studied canine communication have an understanding how the species communicates but we can never be truly certain as dogs do not speak and they cannot tell us how they are feeling.
Owners often misinterpret the signals their dogs are displaying, particularly if they have never learned about canine communication. They anthropomorphise their pets and believe they are feeling ‘guilty’ for being naughty or ’jealous’ if they are being ignored. Again, we do not know that dogs are capable of feeling these human emotions as there is no evidence to suggest that they have the presence of mind to do so. In comparison, a dog can communicate with another dog – they speak the same language, they recognise fear, they recognise pain and they have been taught that all important bite-inhibition. If one is doing something wrong and they use positive punishment, what they have done to deserve the punishment will be communicated to them. A dog practicing it on another dog knows how much force to use and is rarely full on aggressive. Humans do not have that same ability – we cannot inform a puppy as to why he is having a positive punishment hand-touch because he is play biting and we do not know how hard or soft to do it.
It is my belief that by carrying out physical corrections, which are classed as positive punishments, with your hands, the dog can learn to associate your hands with negative connotations. If you are causing pain and fear when you are carrying them out, the dog will view your hands to be a threat. Welfare organisations have experience of this. A dog has gone stray and they are trying to catch it, they get so close and when they reach out with their hands to take the dog gently by the collar, it backs away. Veterinary practices will also witness it too. A vet or nurse will try and help a dog in pain and they have to use their hands. Due to hands being used as a positive punisher previously, hands are seen as a threat, the dog is in pain, it is fearful, it is nervous of their hands and so it might then growl or even try and bite the professional.
Another reason why I do not believe in punishment is that physical force is often carried out as an outlet for the owners’ own frustration. Physical and positive corrections can be used inappropriately by non-professionals and provide an excuse for the owner to up the physicality in the future for anything they see as the dog being ‘naughty’. The punishments can get more severe and could be used when the dog is behaving in a certain way because of another reason such as he is actually unwell or frustrated as its exercise and mental needs are not being met. If professionals advocate the use of these methods in their books and television programmes, unqualified and general dog owners will use them and it is, put simply, dangerous. Anthropomorphism also plays a part here. Any owner that believes their dog is capable of feeling emotions such as ‘guilt’ or ‘jealously’ will not think twice about smacking their dog on the nose if they have read one of Ceser Millan’s books – or indeed any other behaviourist who practices these methods.
This belief if backed up by Karen Pryor’s work. In her book ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’, she describes how punishment is humanity’s favourite method of dealing with unwanted behaviours. She makes the point that if one punishment does not work, a human will look to escalate the punishment and there is no end to it. Pryor’s point is a valid on. Leaving physicality aside for a minute, if we tell an owner that it is okay to shout at their dog if they disagree with a behaviour, the noise might work the first time as the dog is scared. The second time, it does not have the same effect and slowly the dog learns to ignore it. What does the owner do? They shout louder and louder and louder until they are literally screaming at their dog – the punishment is escalating. If we therefore tell them that a positive punishment such as a hand-touch is acceptable, what happens the second time it does not work? The hand-touch gets harder. If it continues to stop working the force will increase until the human is smacking and hitting the dog harder and harder and then that becomes abuse and a welfare issue. Of course, this is an extreme case but proves the point that positive punishment can be dangerous if used in the wrong hands and escalates. For me, the risk of this happening is too great.
In his book ‘In Defence of Dogs’, John Bradshaw supports the point that in the wrong hands, physical punishment can be dangerous. He questions how we know that the dog can associate the punishment with the unwanted behaviour. The answer is we do not. Bradshaw also highlights that while it might stop the behaviour in the instant it can cause relationship problems between the dog and the owner. It is unsurprising that a dog smacked harshly by its owner will be less likely to return to the owner when they are running free.
Physicality and punishment causes pain and fear. We know that it increases stress hormones and we know that a stressed dog can be difficult to live with. Aggression can also breed aggression. Punishment can also lead to a dog to fear something in the vicinity that it has occurred and therefore it can learn to be aggressive towards that something.
I am yet to see a physically punished dog give up the unwanted behaviour entirely. I have seen friends-of-friends positively punish their dogs for behaviours generated through the dogs frustration and boredom because they are not getting the right amount of exercise or mental stimulation and I have seen dogs been punished for not doing anything wrong, for example, the dog who takes a while to go back to their owner but then eventually does. Owners need to be patient and they cannot use positive punishment as an outlet for their own frustration. We know dogs learn better through reward. And there is usually an alternative to positive punishment - it might take longer but with patience and time it is easily achieved and is longer-lasting.
So what do we do if we have a dog with a serious unwanted behaviour or a serious problem? We apply common sense and use control and management methods. To use positive punishment carries too great a risk.