Punishment: Correction or Abuse?

Extracts from an article by Peggy Moran, dog owner, behaviourist and trainer, who has been working professionally with dogs since 1975, specialising in behavioural problems.

Punishment is Abuse.
Punishment starts with anger, and, unfortunately, has many manifestations, ranging from wringing hands to wringing necks!
Scolding,hitting,shaming,banishment,confinement,yelling,muzzling,duct-taping the mouth, scruff shaking, kicking, rubbing the dog's nose in its excrement, pinning and biting are just some examples of the types of abuse inflicted on companion dogs by owners desperate for compliance. People have been led into a false sense of knowledge about companion animals, especially dogs. Proximity with dogs, both in real life and through media representations have allowed a sort of half-fact, half-fiction hybrid idea of the dog to develop in our minds.

How close is our perception of man's best friend to the real thing? There are as many interpretations of dogs as there are dogs. Can everyone be right? To truly know a dog, one must have both scientific knowledge and emotional empathy. Understanding dog's needs, drives, instincts and perceptions helps people avoid the pitfalls of overlooking the real thing in favour of a canine version of "The Emperor's New Clothes." When you love a facade you have projected onto another life, you fail to recognise and love that life for its true self. Too many dogs go unrecognised for what they are; their owners are too busy trying to reshape, coerce or pound them into being the dogs they want, instead of appreciating the dogs they have.

What are we trying to accomplish with punishment? Control. We want to interrupt, abolish and disallow inappropriate behaviour, but will that be enough? Do you want to control your pup or would you prefer the pup control itself? Punishment at best results in the dog, that, out of submission and/or subordination, stops misbehaving when interrupted, or when the disciplinarian is present. What happens when the 'authority` figure leaves? The pup hasn't learnt not to start the misbehaviour in the first place. Some pups even begin to misbehave deliberately and then wait to see who will play the negative-attention game with them. Although owners rarely find this type of interaction fun, many dogs do! Any attention may be fun for a young, bored, unemployed dog.

Can dogs actually enjoy punishment, i.e., negative attention? Sometimes they do, but this unfortunately causes rage in certain owners, and they might even pile on more drastic punishment. This will not cause the desired effect. When a dog feels threatened by unpleasant punishment, it will kick into self defence, reflex based behaviour. This means that it will stop thinking and start reacting. The reactions will manifest in three ways: Freeze, Flight, or Flight-reflex Behaviour, or sometimes a combination of these.

Freeze reflexes causes a dog to cower and even roll over and urinate. These dogs are surrendering to the threat, throwing themselves at the attackers mercy - in essence, the canine equivalent of saying, "uncle". They are not showing they are sorry or that they understand the nature of their crime. They are not aware of right or wrong, only that they are being attacked and this is their mode of self defence.

The second possible response is flight, in which a dog retreats from threat. If cornered, a flight-prone dog may surface serious aggression as a last stand, panic-based response. This is what causes some dogs to be labelled "fear biters". These dogs would rather not bite, they would like to leave. Only when escape is impossible, does the flight reflex dog resort to aggression.

The third response to threat is counter-aggression. Strike a dog with aggressive, self defence reflexes and what do you get? Snapped at! The dog is not choosing to turn on its owner, it is just reacting as a knee-jerk when tapped with a doctor's rubber mallet. Dogs frequently learn to repeat aggressive behaviours more and more deliberately, once they discover that their overt behaviour causes the attacker to retreat! Many dominant dogs are aggressive -reflex based animals that have evolved into bullies due to the success they experienced, with what started out as automatic behaviour.

Punishment quickly becomes the most predictable type of attention the puppy receives. Although a "stop when I say no" approach may deter a subordinate dog temporarily, it will not work with dogs that believe they rank higher than their would-be bosses. Even the dog that stops on command may start the undesired behaviour again, as soon as the "big boss" leaves. Puppies soon learn when owners are willing, if unwitting, followers. Picture a puppy out in a newly fenced, dog friendly back yard. The owner peeks out the window to observe the dog enjoying nature. But the dog seems to be enjoying nature a bit too much; he's started his own excavating business, digging a crater in his own little Garden of Eden. The owner runs out brandishing a rolled-up newspaper to interrupt the misdeed and to teach the dog a lesson in yard etiquette. And learn he does! Not to never dig again, but to dig more! Digging is still enjoyable when alone in nature, and now it seems to cause people to come running out into the yard. Granted, the human friends are not in the best of moods, but to a social animal, any company is better than none.

The pendulum begins its swing - dog leads with misbehaviour and the owner follows with reaction.

Do dogs like to be scolded and hit? Of course not, but they do like predictable interaction. Negative attention is still attention; it is more fun than being ignored.
Which scenario would you think a young puppy or adolescent dog would prefer? The first scenario is an owner's ideal, not a dog's. Very few parents need to wonder why children prefer playing in large rain puddles than sitting in starched clothes in church; one is more is more fun.

The difficult aspect of training is making life more enjoyable for everyone, while teaching the puppy self control. Punishment will not do it; when punishment does work it is because the dog is soft and compliant by nature. Were such harsh tools necessary? What else did the puppy learn beyond the supposed "lesson"? To fear its owner, to be hand-shy and distrustful.

Dogs will be dogs.
The misbehaving dog is a good dog. Everything it does makes perfect dog sense. Angry owners often project human reasons onto their dogs to explain the dog's misbehaviours. These misinterpretations lead to punishment that is perceived as wilful malicious. For Example, a dog left at home is likely to become destructive.
Why? Not because it is "spiteful, angry or trying to get even for being left alone." The dog is destructive because it is a social animal, that by nature never would experience solitary confinement. Humans inflict far too much stress on their dogs while failing to understand canine stress management tools. A dog cannot call for help on the canine psychiatric hotline. When tension mounts, the dog releases it either orally, vocally or physically. The dog does not understand or consider the value of what it destroys or the level of nuisance it creates. Understanding human rules, values and expectations is not part of canine nature. The environment is not natural and the language is not understood, making things inconsistent and unclear. Humans selected and bred dogs and established all the terms of this animal's life, yet they punish this finished product for being the mess they created! If a dog is behaving inappropriately, of course it needs to be re-educated, but its teachers must first re-educate them selves.

Why do some owners keep repeating discipline for the same misbehaviour when it isn't working? Because they may not understand why punishment is not working and become worried, frustrated, and angry. The misbehaviour is threatening the dog they want to like. If the dog would just agree with the program, everyone would be happy. There is no excuse for abuse and cruelty. There is, however, an excuse for every canine misbehaviour. Understanding the source of every problem is the first and largest step towards correcting it. Symptomatic treatment in the form of punishment only makes more problems for everyone. We should not punish dogs for thinking like dogs, nor hold them accountable for what they perceive as appropriate behaviour.

Some people may argue that in some instances punishment works and therefore should be considered a legitimate form of behavioural correction. There are other tools that would work just as well and without harm to either the dog or that dog's trust in its human keepers. Does the end( a subdued dog) justify the means (force and intimidation)? I don't think so. When a puppy owner becomes frustrated enough to punish the dog, it is time to stop and seek help. There are many trainers and behaviourists who offer owner and puppy educational programs. The ones that work use reinforcement techniques, not punishment. They allow the dog to form or revise its opinion about its own behaviour rather than impose our opinions on our dogs. Reinforcements teach dogs to seek or avoid consequences without feeling fear or distrust. =

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