Why Punishment-Based Dog Training Doesn’t Work

Five questions for a veterinary behaviorist about training and punishment.


Karen Overall is a scientist, and has a lot of science-based degrees: BA, MA, VMD and a Ph.D. She ran the Behavior Clinic for 12 of her 14 years at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and now is a research associate in the Penn Med psychiatry department.

I heard Dr. Overall give a four-hour presentation on the treatment of pathological anxiety in dogs at the 2003 Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference. She spent almost an hour talking about the structure and function of the dog’s brain, and more time discussing the chemical actions and reactions that accompany thought, memory, and learning in mammals. It was fascinating.

It was especially gratifying for me to hear Dr. Overall explain why and how teaching techniques that help pupils think in a calm manner are the most effective – and how stress and fear interfere with learning and memory. Later, I had an opportunity to ask Dr. Overall to answer a few short questions for our readers. –Editor


Punishment Based Training

WDJ: Why is it a bad idea to use punishment when training a dog?

KO: First, because the punishment techniques that are most commonly used with dogs are not about teaching them something. Almost every person I have ever seen punish a dog was angry, hurt, disappointed, or embarrassed, and that’s why the dog got punished, not because the punishment was going to help the dog learn.

By definition, punishment is something that will decrease the probability of the occurrence of a certain behavior. Generally, this punishment involves something that is sufficiently startling or aversive so as to thwart the “problem” behavior. If the dog has benefitted from the behavior in the past, it will take even more startling or aversive punishment to override his expectation of getting that reward again.

Frequently, a punished dog stops attending to you; you become something to be avoided. And if you overstep and really scare the dog – even just once – you have taught him that you are a threat. It should not be a surprise that dogs learn through fear very quickly, and then try to avoid the thing that caused the fear response: you. The amygdala (the area of the brain that’s concerned with generating the fear response) and the hippocampus (the area that’s concerned with how information is processed and stored) sit right against each other. The circuits between the two are hard-wired, allowing dogs to learn avoidance behaviors very quickly. This makes sense, from an evolutionary standpoint. If you want to avoid a predator, hanging around and reasoning it out are not great survival strategies. Fear responses save your life, so they have to be constructed from a straightforward, direct, simple pathway.

Whether or not you end up teaching the dog what you wanted him to learn, he’ll learn that he shouldn’t trust you, and that humans are unpredictable.

WDJ: Why is it important to preserve a good relationship between dogs and people?

KO: Violence not only breaks our bond with dogs, it damages us, too. It affects how we deal with all of our relationships, with particularly worrisome implications for people with children. In my practice, I often see people who have used violent training techniques that have made their animals worse, and they are devastated. They are truly damaged by the terror they inflicted on their animals.

WDJ: Are there any circumstances in which using physical force with a dog is useful?

KO: No. The only circumstance in which I would hit a dog is if the dog was attacking, and I had to defend my life or the life of my human or animal family.

WDJ: Curiously, I have heard people use a similar argument when they advocate the use of shock collars. People argue, “This dog will have to go to the pound and probably be put down if his owners can’t contain him.” Is saving a dog’s life a good reason to use aversive training tools?

KO: Among my patients, all of the dogs who were “treated” with shock by their people became worse and ended up dead.

In my patient population, the single biggest risk factor that dogs have for euthanasia has nothing to do with their behavior. It turns out that if the clients have seriously considered euthanasia, the dogs end up dead. If they have said, “No, we absolutely will not consider euthanasia,” they do everything they can to rehabilitate the dogs – and the dogs get better.

Keep in mind that a shelter surrender is not always the worst thing that can happen to a dog. Some dogs, even dogs with serious behavior problems, do get adopted. They may be one of the lucky ones, like my dog Flash, who had a record of serious aggression when I got him – aggression that was aggravated, if not initiated, by physical abuse in the name of “training.” If they are really lucky, they will find a home where patient, consistent, intelligent handling will help them erase all those previous crimes.

WDJ: So, dogs and our relationship with them can recover from violence?

KO: Absolutely. I now use Flash to work with other dogs with behavioral problems and their damaged people; he’s a genius at this work. I would like to believe that the people who hung Flash by a choke chain are no longer part of his nightmares. I want to believe that that’s gone from him, that his recovery is complete. I hope with all my heart that’s true.