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Punishment is Not the Answer – Karen Phillips

When our dogs do something that we don’t want, it is common for our first response to be disciplining or using punishment such as yelling, smacking or perhaps even threatening them with a rolled up newspaper.  Research has shown that using punishment in dog training only serves to suppress the behaviour that the owner is attempting to stop.  What can happen is that the wrong behaviour will simply be replaced by a different behaviour.  It is impossible to predict what that different behaviour will be and the owner may well be left with something worse than what they originally had.

I learnt this the hard way when my now fourteen year old border collie Murphy started barking while I was at work.  Murphy was about four years old at the time and the barking started when workmen began building townhouses on the property behind where I lived.  With pressure from neighbours to stop the barking coupled with my lack of knowledge, I made the terrible mistake of looking for help where only punishment methods of dog training were used.  It did stop the barking however due to the anxiety caused by the punishment-based training methods, Murphy started jumping the fence every time he got stressed or anxious.  There was no way I could have predicted that this was going to happen and I was extremely lucky he was never hit by a car while he was on the roads.

It is important to remember that dogs do not intentionally do things to upset us or “get back at us”, rather they are responding to the situation that they are in.  Murphy clearly felt threatened by strangers in close proximity to his backyard; a place where he normally felt safe.  Murphy by nature is an anxious dog who reacted by barking at the perceived threat hoping that the strangers would go away.  By then subjecting him to very aggressive verbal corrections and throwing an object on the ground right in front of him to cause intimidation only served to push his anxiety levels through the roof.  His way of coping was to escape the backyard which had ceased to be a safe area for him.

After I regained my senses I came up with a positive training solution which was to put a dog door in allowing Murphy access to the house.  The house remained Murphy’s safe haven and if he was anxious or stressed outside he would simply take himself inside the house.  He never barked or tried to get over the fence again.  Problem solved AND a happy dog.  It was an incredibly important lesson for me to learn and the experience has had a huge impact on the way I have trained my dogs ever since.

Whenever you encounter problem behaviours with your dog, the first thing you need to do is stop and assess before launching into a counter attack.  Consider what might be the cause of your dog’s behaviour.  You can discover a lot by observing behavioural patterns and what happens immediately prior to the “bad” behaviour.  An example of this is with dogs who toilet in the house.  Once the owner has established the behaviour pattern she has the opportunity to retrain the dog with the correct behaviour of toileting outside.

Retraining can be achieved by the owner stepping in just before the dog is about to toilet in the house and quietly take the dog outside and then (most importantly) reward him when he does go in the correct place.  Effectively, the owner is redirecting the undesired behaviour and creating the one that she wants in its place.  If the dog doesn’t truly understand that toileting in the house isn’t what his owner wants or the habit is caused by stress or changes to the environment, using punishment will just make things worse.  It is even highly likely that the dog will continue to toilet in the house but will instead wait until his owner isn’t around to punish him.

Don’t make the same mistakes that I did and inadvertently subject a dog to inappropriate and unnecessary punishment-based training methods.  Remember that reward-based dog training is the only dog training method with a 100% success rate when utilised correctly.

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