How Does Punishment Affect A Dog's Behavior?

As perfect as our pups can be, sometimes they make mistakes and need correction. How you correct your dog, however, is of utmost importance. Punishing a dog for certain actions can actually lead to an increase in the incorrect behavior or even aggressive behavior. It's important to focus on positive reinforcement while training your dog and avoid punishments that can have lasting negative effects.

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What is punishment?

First and foremost, punishment is not the best word to use with our furry friends. When your dog misbehaves, he should be corrected or trained to do the right thing instead of being "punished." There are some dog trainers, however, that use "discipline"-based training techniques that involve physical force.

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Negative punishment in dog training

Common punishment (or confrontational) techniques include: sharp leash corrections, hitting or kicking the dog, using electric shock, applying physical force to push a dog into a submissive position, or the "alpha roll," which forces the dog to roll onto his back in a submissive position. Other techniques include shouting and growling at the dog, grabbing a dog's neck or spraying him with a water gun.

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Correlations between punishing dogs and children

Believers in discipline-based training claim that dog owners need to assert themselves as the "alpha" or "pack leader," using physical manipulations and intimidation. They assert that physical force tactics should compel the dog to take a subservient role. This ideology is increasing in popularity even though research suggests that such practices are unproductive.

Doctor Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, points out the psychological correlations between dogs and human children in Psychology Today. Evidence suggests that the mind of a dog is approximately equivalent to the mind of a 2 to 3 year-old human child. This correlation means studying the psychology of young humans can help us better understand the minds and behaviors of our dogs. A study in the journal Pediatrics looked at the effects of spanking (a physical punishment) on young children. Catherine Taylor and researchers at Tulane University reported that children who were spanked more frequently at age three were much more likely to be aggressive at age five. "The odds of a child being more aggressive at age five increased by 50 percent if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began," said Taylor. Because of copious findings such as this, the American Academy of Pediatrics has chosen not to endorse spanking under any circumstances. These findings in human children tell us a lot about how we should approach correction with our dogs. Researchers have conducted experiments with dogs, however, that further lead to the same conclusions.

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What behaviors do punished dogs exhibit?

Meghan Herron and her colleagues at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reported that punishment techniques used during dog training tend to increase aggression in animals, much in the same way that spanking increases aggression in human children. The level of aggression displayed by the dogs depends on the specific punishment technique that are implemented. Forty-three percent of the dogs in the study showed increased aggression when they were hit or kicked, but only 3 percent showed increased aggression when they were told a corrective sound like "Schtt!" or "Uh-uh!" Here are more corrective punishments and correlating percentages of dogs that showed aggressive responses.

  • Hitting or kicking- 43%
  • Growling at dog- 41%
  • Forced release of item- 38 %
  • Alpha roll- 31%
  • Water spray- 20%
  • Forced dominance down- 29%
  • Grab scruff of neck- 26%
  • Stare down threat- 30%
  • Shouting "No!"- 15%
  • Prong collar correction-11%
  • Leash correction- 6%
  • "Schhtt" sound correction- 3%

An increase in aggression is clear when a dog is physically punished. There is much more damage that can be done to the dog internally as well. A dog that is beaten beyond the point of training and is physically abused may:

  • Be distrustful and withdraw from people
  • Be hostile and vicious towards people
  • Become depressed and act defeated
  • Be reclusive and quiet
  • Not want to play anymore
  • Be afraid to explore his surroundings or go outside
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Positive reinforcement in dog training

Before you attempt to train your dog or change his behavior in any way, you first want to understand his behavior. Understanding how your dog thinks, why he does what he does, accepting his limitations, and embracing his potential are all crucial first steps in the training process.

When you are going to correct your dog, it's important to do so immediately. Catch your dog red-handed and correct him right then and there. This way, your dog knows exactly why he is being corrected and isn't simply learning to be afraid of you and to act submissively whenever you seem angry or annoyed.

The best tactic for correcting your dog during and after training is positive reinforcement. Instead of punishing bad behavior, reward good behavior. This is typically done by giving your dog a treat, a toy, or praise whenever he performs a desired action. The most important keys to getting positive reinforcement to work are consistency and timing. Just like when you correct your dog, you want to reward his good behavior immediately and every time he performs as he's supposed to. Consistency and perfect timing let your dog know exactly what behavior is being rewarded. Our dogs are motivated by wanting to please us and will be eager to receive positive reinforcement. When your dog misbehaves by chewing on your shoe for example, say "No" firmly but not angrily. It is crucial that you do not scold your dog but redirect his energy. Say "No" to the shoe then give him a chew toy instead. The next time he chews on his toy, pat him on the head and praise him. His will quickly associate the positive reinforcement with the correct behavior.

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Can punishment be positive?

Studies confirm that punishing techniques used on dogs has the same effect that physical punishment has on children: An increase in aggressive behavior, especially towards the individual who is applying the punishment. Because of this, it is hardly likely that punishment can ever be positive. Even if you see temporary "improvement" in your dog after punishing him, he is only operating and obeying you out of fear. In the long run, however, you will end up with a dog that is not only afraid of you but aggressive towards you.