I am becoming very bored with the statement, “we don’t need to use violence to train a dog” The positive-only and force-free (PO/FF) groups say that their training follows the principles of canine behaviour, and that all dogs are instinctively looking to please us, so there is no need to use ‘violence’.
The term ‘violence’ in dog training and behaviour modification has become the PO/FF training catch phrase. According to these groups, anyone that uses any type of force or an applied aversive, in otherwords physical punishment, are relying on violence to train a dog. If this statement wasn’t so serious, it would honestly be laughable. How did the term punishment become synonymous with violence? Appropriate punishment when carried out correctly is not a voilent act.


Let me run through each of the points raised in the above image:

  1. It inhibits learning – If this was indeed a true statement, then how have animal social groups survived and evolved since the beginning of time? I ask any positive-only or force-free trainer, to point out just one social group in the animal kingdom that does not utilise punishment to help maintain social order within the pack, or to control a limited resource, such as food, space or mating rights. So if indeed this statement is in fact true, no animal on the planet including humans would have survived for all these millions of years, as they would have learnt nothing, as according to this statement, all learning would have been inhibited.
  2. It can lead to aggression – OK again, if this was indeed an across the board true blanket statement, then why have social animals survived and evolved for millions of years? Over the past 36 years of working professionally with dogs, I would say that one of the biggest issues that is causing aggression in the family dog, or why there is a continuing increase each year of hospitalisations for dog bites, is due to the fact that dog owners are being falsely informed that all their dog requires is lots of love and affection. After all, your dog will not bite you or become aggressive towards you if it loves you in return. Well unfortunately, love and affection alone will not encourage respect from your dog, or in fact even from other humans that have a leadership type role, such as a parent, employer, law enforcement, etc. In animal social groups (even human) its the enforcement of boundaries and rules, that creates respect between individuals within the social group, and holds that social group together. When discipline ceases, the social group falls into disarray and chaos, and the social group will very quickly cease to exist as a cohesive unit. Aren’t we already seeing this in our own society where punishment is being condemned, and even outlawed, to appease a minority group that steadfastly believes that punishment is indeed violence? Not only this, it is my firm belief and observation, that most inappropriate punishment comes to light due to not being instructed on how to apply ‘appropriate’ punishment. I have lost count of how many homes I have been to over the years, whereby the dog owner has tried so hard to follow the positive-only or force-free agenda, only to have frustration build up to such a level that indeed emotion takes over and becomes anger, and then inappropriate punishment, which can be correctly termed violence has the very real potential of raising its ugly head. When a dog owner that has been falsely informed that punishment is never an option, it then eventually becomes the only option, and then has the potential to be controlled by negative emotions such as frustration and anger.
  3. It is very difficult to execute effectively – Well isn’t it the case that almost anything is difficult to execute effectively, if it is not first  understood and therefore taught how to apply it correctly? I have come across more dogs in homes that have issues such as extreme anxiety, overly assertive behaviours, hyperactivity, and the list goes on, due to incorrectly administered love and affection. Dog owners, just as they should do to understand when its appropriate to give love and affection, and how to impliment this correctly, need to be taught what appropriate punishment techniques are, how to impliment them and when it is and is not appropriate to do so.
  4. It doesn’t teach the dog what to do – Punishment isn’t used to teach any animal what to do, it is to teach an animal what NOT to do. Isn’t that obvious to everyone? Why do these groups continually come out with this statement? The reason is, because they want you to believe that anyone that uses punishment, only use punishment in training to train dogs ,to push their positive-only and force-free agenda. Wherein the truth is, that punishment usually implimented in less than 10% of the time. Punishment is used to inhibit or extinguish a behaviour, it is not used to teach a behaviour, other than avoidance. The problem with positive-only ideology, is that there is no consequence for carrying out an unwanted or dangerous behaviour. These groups main method is to only teach an alternative behaviour, and stop rewarding the current unwanted behaviour. In most cases, all this methodology does is add another behaviour to the dogs repertoire of already learnt behaviours, it doesn’t remove or inhibit any behaviours. So the unwanted behaviour they are only ignoring has the very strong potential of raising its ugly head, whenever the dog feels it is advantageous to do so, as there is never an unpleasant consequence the dog can drawn on in its memory to avoid carrying out that behaviour.
  5. It doesn’t stop the reinforcement of the unwanted behaviour – This statement is true for any methodology you choose to employ when training a dog or modifying behaviour. Unless one stops reinforcing a behaviour, it will never cease to be a behavioural response for the dog.
  6. It can increase the behaviour if applied inconsistently – Why does this statement suggest that it is inconsistent punishment that increases behaviour, which indeed is not true. In fact its the inconsistent reinforcing of behaviour that increases or strengthens a behaviour. Inconsistent punishment only teaches the dog to be selective as to when it chooses that particular behaviour, not strengthen it. For example, most of us speed occasionally when driving. The reason most of us do speed is because the punishment is inconsistent. Inconsistency of the punishment doesn’t make us speed more often or faster, it just teaches us to be selective as when to speed. Variable positive reinforcement is one of the strongest methods known to strengthen a behaviour, after-all that’s the principle poker machines (slot machines) work on. Variable reinforcement actually strengthens a behaviour. However, I do agree that ‘inappropriate‘ punishment can increase avoidance behaviours such as fear based aggression. However, its not the aggression that the dog perceives as reinforcement, its the compliance to the aggressive response, by backing away that reinforces the aggression.
  7. The animal can grow used to the punishment so that higher and high levels of intensity are required – The issue I have with this statement is that when an aversive is administered at or below the dogs threshold of discomfort, all it becomes is an interrupter of the behaviour. An interrupter will not inhibit or extinguish a behaviour that the dog finds self rewarding. The aversive needs to be applied just above the dogs threshold of discomfort for it to decide that it is best to avoid that particular behaviour. Its the dog that decides if the punishment is severe enough for it to want to avoid the behaviour it is paired with, not the person administering it. The motivation to avoid discomfort needs to be stronger than the motivation to carry out the behaviour. Yes I do agree, that by not administering an aversive just above the dogs current threshold of discomfort, can actually increase the dogs threshold of discomfort each time it is administered.
  8. The animal can develop unintended associations with the punishment, for example other animals or people – Same can be said about the incorrect use of positive reinforcement. The inappropriate use of positive reinforcement can develop in a dog an increased sense of entitlement and assertive behaviours. It can also help develop increased dependency issues and an overly anxious emotional state resulting in stress. It doesn’t matter what quadrant of operant conditioning we are using to either reinforce or inhibit a behaviour, we need to understand their correct use.
  9. It is disempowering for the animal – Not sure I quite understand this statement. Isn’t the purpose for applying an aversive to take away a dogs sense of control of the relationship, or personal and social space, or resouce? Or to inhibit or extinguish an unwanted behaviour?  Or do we want to empower a dogs sense of control over us by only utilising positive reinforcement?
  10. It is habit forming for the punisher – This is a ridiculous statement, I can say this in regards to dog owners that are habitual in overly administering (and inapropriate) affection to their dog. An abusive person is an abusive person, and has nothing to do with the four quadrants of operant conditioning (R+, R-, P+, P-). No dog trainer enjoys punishing a dog, but we are well aware that at times it is a requirement, if we want to establish a well balanced relationship with our dog, ensure a well balanced dog, and to inhibit or extinguish inapparopriate, and most importantly, dangerous behaviours.