How do you discipline your dog?

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

I’m going to reveal a secret technique (well, not so secret anymore I guess) that I use when I evaluate dogs with behavior issues. That technique is a question I ask the dog’s owner as part of my assessment, “How do you discipline your dog?”

I ask this question because it’s a fairly neutral question and doesn’t put the dog’s owner on the defensive. I find that most owners seem to be honest and forthright in their answers.

What do their answers tell me?

Owners who say they hit, use leash “corrections” (i.e., forcibly yank the leash against the dog’s neck), spank, use prong collars, use shock collars or alpha-roll their dog (i.e., forcibly push a dog to the ground in a supine position) haven’t yet learned how this kind of punishment may be hurting the relationship they have with their dog.

These owners are usually very receptive to finding out more about what animal science has found over the last 25 years about using positive reinforcement to mold behaviors. Positive reinforcement (also known as positive reward) is much more effective at changing and managing dogs’ behavior and doesn’t sour the relationship dogs have with their owner.

One of the problems with physically punishing dogs is that it uses what I call the “not this” training strategy which is infinite. Let me explain.

If someone wants his dog to walk nicely on a leash, he might try to train his dog using the “not this” strategy by doing the following:

·      Giving the dog a leash “correction” when he pulls left.
·      Hitting him on the rear when he pulls to the right.
·      Bopping him on the head when he is not keeping up.
·      Giving him a leash “correction” when he is pulling forward.
·      Kicking his back legs when he jumps up during a walk.

The large number of utterly confusing messages to the dog in this example are, “don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t go that way, not that way…” If the dog could speak our language, he would scream, “Why don’t you show me and reward me for what you want me to do instead of this endless and bewildering list of things you don’t want me to do that you keep punishing me for?”

Alternatively, we can better train dogs to walk nicely on leash using modern positive reinforcement methods by, 1) helping dogs understand what specific things we want them to do, 2) rewarding them when they give us those behaviors, 3) ignoring their incorrect attempts, and 4) not expecting too much too fast.  This method of training will work for anything we want to teach a dog.

I don’t use or teach punishment techniques (also known as aversive methods) with dogs in my behavior consulting practice because the training results are not as long lasting or durable. These methods also diminish the quality of the relationship between handler and dog. I also, quite frankly, think they can be somewhat abusive sometimes.

Positive training techniques that use rewards (e.g., play, food, praise) have been shown to produce better training results and are more humane for the animal. If you have any questions about these techniques or have a behavior issue with your dog, please contact a qualified and certified behavior consultant or animal behaviorist.