Why Physical Punishment Works

Physically punishing your dog is obviously a pretty controversial topic, whether it’s in the form of hitting, kicking, scruff shaking, alpha rolling, dominance downs, pinching, or leash corrections. There’s a reason these methods are still used and recommended by trainers to this day. It’s because they tend to work – and fast. And if there’s one thing we love, it’s a quick fix that requires minimal effort on our part.

But here’s the thing… physical punishments do not address or resolve the underlying cause of the dog’s behavior. Because of this, even if they were humane methods I would still not use them. It only fixes your problem. Not the dog’s.  In clicker training, we strive to solve the problem, not put a band-aid on it that can actually worsen behavioral problems. All physical punishments really teach a dog is that we can be bullies. Proper training requires an understanding of the dog’s mind and how they learn.

One thing I hear most often is “the dog knew better.” This is a line of thinking we really need to get away from. Dogs do not have the cognitive ability to understand the concepts of right and wrong. All they know is that when they perform a certain behavior, their owner becomes scary or violent. Dogs are masters at reading body language; it’s their first language, after all, and that is what they’re responding to – not what they did. They are cowering and looking “guilty” because your body language is telling them you’re upset, and things could get scary, so they’re throwing appeasement gestures at you to calm you and let you know they don’t want trouble. Not because they know they did something wrong. Worse yet, if you ignore these signals and punish them anyway, they only learn that those signals aren’t working and they need to escalate their response in the future. This could mean growling or biting.

Let me ask you something: when you get a speeding ticket, do you stop speeding? Yeah… probably not. You’re just more careful about how you speed. The same applies to your dog. The dog will still perform the behavior (for example, stealing food off the counter) because it’s still quite rewarding. Just not when you’re around. The dog doesn’t realize stealing food off the counter is wrong, just that you become scary and violent if the he does it when you’re around. But if you’re not around? Oh nothing scary happens and I get a tasty snack, this is awesome!

It is so, so much easier (for the dog) to teach them what we want them to DO, instead of teaching them what NOT to do. Our world is very complex and different from a dog’s. It is our responsibility to teach them and give them the tools to live and be happy in our world. But we have to do so in a way they understand. Dogs are much more simplistic and opportunistic than we tend to think, thanks to our love of anthropomorphizing them. Stealing food off the counter is something that only fits our definition of “wrong.” In their world it’s just food, they don’t understand that it’s inappropriate to take it in certain contexts.

Instead of yelling at or hitting your dog every time he steals something off the counter, start teaching him instead to sit politely and ask permission. Or even teach him that he should sit quietly at the door to the kitchen until you are done. This is much easier for them to understand and has a much better chance of success.

Sorry, I kind of rambled off course there – let’s get back on track to why physical punishment works. The dogs of physical punishers can be calm, quiet, and well-behaved. That would be impressive, if they hadn’t bullied the dog into being that way. Physical punishments only tend to suppress a behavior – not change it. Some dogs will even shut down and become too afraid to do anything for fear of punishment. The dog’s emotional state is still anxious or fearful (I should add here that most behavioral issues and “dominance displays” are caused by fear, not aggression). But if you slowly turn the situation around into a positive one, you can teach the dog that the situation is okay and fun. Then the dog will begin to look forward to and enjoy said situation. Everyone wins, even though it took a little more time and effort on your part.

With some dogs, though, physical punishments can actually worsen behavioral issues such as fear-based aggression. The dog goes into fight or flight mode and feels that it has been forced to defend itself from this crazy, violent human. This isn’t the dog rebelling, this isn’t the dog fighting for dominance, it’s just you having terrified the dog to the point he feels he is in a life or death situation.

And with issues like leash-reactivity, if you’re leash-popping with a prong collar or smacking the dog every time he growls and lunges at another dog, you’re typically just teaching him that it’s awful when other dogs come around because he gets punished. But if you change his emotional state to a happier one and turn the situation around into a positive one, then he learns it’s not so bad when other dogs come around and he doesn’t need to fly off the handle to keep them away.

I’m not saying physical punishments are going to ruin and break every dog. Some dogs do fine on things like leash corrections. But these are methods that are so, so easily misused and abused in the ignorant hands of your average dog owner. There are ways that don’t risk psychologically or physically harming your dog, and they help solidify your dog’s trust in you. But we still go the lazy route of physical punishment because it works faster and takes less effort.

I’m sorry if any of that was vague and not explained well, I’m trying to keep everything short and simple. If anything is fuzzy don’t hesitate to ask. Unless it’s your dog. Your dog is supposed to be fuzzy.

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