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The P-Word: Why “Punishment” Makes Me Cringe

"From the get-go, dogs don’t know right from wrong or “should” from Shinola®… They invented the phrase, “If it feels good do it.” "

As a dog trainer, nothing makes me cringe like the use of the P-Word: “Punishment.”  I have a visceral reaction to it, like I have to several of the other culturally and emotionally charged words in our English language.  Here’s why I react to the P-Word:

From the get-go, dogs don’t know right from wrong or “should” from Shinola®…  They invented the phrase, “If it feels good do it.”  Timothy Leary just borrowed it in the 70’s. Dogs are not immoral; they are simply amoral.  Their world and their actions in it are determined not by asking themselves if the behavior they are considering is right or wrong, but by asking the question:  “How’s this gonna turn out for me?”

If a behavior ends up in the dog’s favor, they’ll repeat it – not because it was “right”, but because it turned out good for them.  The sandwich left unattended on the coffee table is a tasty treat just waiting to be enjoyed.  It is not “wrong’ to take the sandwich.  If it is yummy and there is no immediate downside to grabbing it, the dog will continue to be a sandwich-snatcher. In fact, the dog will be confused by the owner’s anger when he returns, finds the sandwich gone and tries to punish the dog for his crime.  “But you don’t understand…” the dog will try in vain to explain.  “It was delicious!”  Dogs are results-driven, not morally constrained.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines punishment as “penalty for a crime or wrongdoing.”  How on earth can you punish an animal that does not understand crime or wrongdoing?   Answer: You can’t. It would be like putting a two-year old on trial for burglary for stealing his sister’s toy.  You cannot punish someone that has no idea they did anything wrong.

You can, however, discourage behaviors in your dog by associating unpleasant results to the behaviors you want him to avoid.  Remember?  Dogs are results-driven!  And in Nature, all actions have re-actions or results – some good and some not so good.  It’s how animals decide which behaviors they will repeat and which they will avoid in the future.  The sandwich-snatcher might think twice about grabbing that morsel if, at the very moment he reached for the ham and cheese, a loud and startling noise occurred just behind him.  If he associates the sandwich-snatching with the unpleasant result of the startling noise…this is what will change his behavior going forward, while the moral outrage of his owner in the example above did not register with him at all.  You cannot punish or guilt a dog into good behavior!

The word “punishment” is also emotionally charged – some would argue intentionally so.  Well-meaning dog trainers that label all corrective measures  as “ dog punishment ” tainting all forms of correction with the imagery of of anger, pain and conflict — without regard to the nuanced specifics.  Since no one in their right mind wants to hurt or harm their dog, all correction is avoided. Boundaries are not established. The dog’s actions do not have consequences. And the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Has anyone seen my friend, Common Sense?  She appears to have gone missing.

  • Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and rules for your dog.
  • Do not yell or punish when your dog “misbehaves”, however.
  • Instead, correct unwanted behaviors by associating them with simple, unpleasant results.  These unpleasant results can include startling noises, an unexpected squirt bottle, the snap of a leash, etc.  Keep that smile on your face throughout!
  • Remember to give good results for good behavior, too.

Oh, there she is!  Common Sense is back!  Welcome home, girlfriend.

Picture of Camilla Gray-Nelson

Camilla Gray-Nelson

Camilla has over 50 years experience with animals (she grew up on the farm!). She has trained, bred and shown dogs since 1989 and brings this broad background and knowledge of dog behavior to her clients and her business. Her life-long understanding of the animal mind helped her develop what has become her signature style of natural dog training and voice control, now simply referred to as the “Dairydell Method”. Camilla and her Dairydell Method have been featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as on San Francisco TV’s Evening Magazine and View From the Bay. Camilla loves teaching – whether it’s dogs, their owners, or the horses you see her riding in Dairydell’s beautiful arena. When she’s not training, teaching or riding, Camilla is writing about her favorite subject: dogs and their people! Camilla holds professional memberships in both the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) and the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP).
Picture of Camilla Gray Nelson

Camilla Gray Nelson

Camilla has over 50 years experience with animals (she grew up on the farm!). She has trained, bred and shown dogs since 1989 and brings this broad background and knowledge of dog behavior to her clients and her business. Her life-long understanding of the animal mind helped her develop what has become her signature style of natural dog training and voice control, now simply referred to as the “Dairydell Method”.

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16 thoughts on “The P-Word: Why “Punishment” Makes Me Cringe”

  1. Well said! I found myself nodding my head in agreement while reading this article, and I am so glad for this straightforward insight into how dogs think and react. It can be so difficult to track down the WHY to what trainers do, thank you for the explanation!

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  3. First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick
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    I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost
    simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or
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    • Hi, there

      I love it when I can answer an interesting question, and this one qualifies!

      I find that in order to immerse myself in a creative process like putting original words to paper, first I need to clear my head (and desk) of all the little things that must get done and would be a distraction — like my email Inbox and any urgent tasks, phone calls or errands that cannot wait until the next day. That allows me to focus in without guilt or worry nagging at the periphery. I will also have jotted down some blog topics that pop into my head while I am working on other things during the week an those give me a jump-start. Blocking out a morning or afternoon on my calendar JUST for writing is also important. Writing from my home office works well for small projects, like blogs, but I find for bigger projects, like books or longer articles, I need to leave my home altogether and plant myself at a coffee shop or even a hotel where I can really take that deep dive.
      In either case, I take the first 10 minutes to sip my customary latte and get my workspace organized just so and the same everytime: laptop just here, notepad just there, coffee cup within easy reach… Routine is everything and knowing that getting into creative mode is a process; having a routine that embraces and enjoys it.

      Hope that helps! Good luck on your writing.

    • Hi, there
      I’m glad you like this blog. If you want to read more from me on this subject and others, you might enjoy my book, “LIPSTICK AND THE LEASH: Dog Training a Woman’s Way”. It is available on Amazon.

      Thank you again for your support and interest.

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