The fallout of punishing behaviors; why you should limit your use of "NO!"
Updated: May 8, 2022
It's not unusual to see dog owners rely on using the word "NO" whenever they see an undesirable behavior. But why are more and more trainers and behaviorists advocating against the excessive use of the word "NO"? Why should you stop using a tool that may have worked in stopping an unwanted behavior in your past experience? If not "NO" then what? What CAN you do that is EFFECTIVE in teaching your dog?
As a R+ force free trainer I am often questioned by many people on this topic. Like dogs, humans do what works. You will often hear that certain aversive methods worked in reducing the dog’s unwanted behavior, that their relationship with their dog is wonderful because of it, and that their dog never developed reactivity or other behavioral fallout from using old-fashioned punitive methods. And that may be true. Punishment can work and can seemingly produce immediate results. If it never worked, it would not be such a popular option.
But have you considered what might happen with your dog's long term behavior if this method doesn't work? What kinds of serious behavioral side effects can it create; deeper than it just 'not working' and you having to go back to the drawing board? Or have you considered that these amazing immediate results you see are just behavior that has been superficially and temporarily suppressed and the severe behavioral fallout that happens doesn't show up until later when a threshold has finally been crossed? What happens to their emotional health?
There are some very real and serious possibilities of behavioral fallout occurring due to applying aversive techniques and dominance theory. And while you may not have noticed any serious issues that arise from using these methods yourself, there is clear science that back ups the theory that coercion can cause serious behavioral repercussions.
In this article, I will explain why you may not want to use correctional training methods although you may have seen it work before. I will also outline what you CAN do in order to get your dog to stop these unwanted behaviors without saying "no" as well as some common beginner mistakes that many people make leading them to believe that R+ training isn't effective on their dog.
The two most common dog training methods today are positive reinforcement based conditioning and correction based training. Until the past 20 years or so, animal training was almost exclusively correction-based; using punishments or “aversives” to teach an animal the desired behavior. In this method, rewards may be used to teach the initial behavior, but once the individual understands what is expected, failure to comply with a command results in a physical correction.
Positive reinforcement is generally considered preferable to correction because dogs learn good behavior with rewards, not by harsh punishment or physical force. Proponents of positive reinforcement training prefer it not only because they feel it is not cruel or stressful to the dog, but also because it provides an animal with clear information on what to do. Whereas, in correction based training, dogs have to guess their mistakes in order to avoid punishment. Motivating a dog to learn through a reward system is more effective when done correctly and nurtures a more emotionally stable and confident dog that is behaving out of desire, not fear. Individuals that enjoy the learning process are much likelier to succeed than those that are punished as part of their training.
To be clear, countless dogs have been successfully trained using both methods. But there are major differences between the two approaches.
The Pitfalls of "NO"
Correction is often not as effective in long term learning because at its core it is used to suppress behavioral responses which has severe shortcomings and side effects. Using aversives can cause fear or resentment in our animals which can then lead to the development of various behavioral issues such as escape avoidance responses, aggression, and counter-control to name a few.
Using corrections can also become frustrating for a number of reasons; the main one being that it does not provide the dog with any useful information other than the fact that they have done something bad that you disliked.
Imagine if you brought a completed project to your boss for approval and your boss merely stated "NO" and sent you away. Did your boss hate your entire project? Or perhaps they didn't like just one small part of it? Was it the concept or the execution they didn't like? Or was your boss just in a horrible mood and had other things on their mind and simply didn't have the time or mental space to review your project? Maybe you've figured out that saying NO is your boss's M.O. and so you have ceased to take him seriously anymore and will just roll your eyes and walk away with no intention of trying to fix the project as you've decided it is an exercise in futility.
Or consider this very human scenario that was shared by trainer Debbie Sheridan:
I was driving with my mother 2 days ago. She's 82 and pretty together. Suddenly she yelled "No nooo!" Ahhhh. I was afraid that another car was going to rear end us or I was going to hit something that I somehow was not seeing. I responded "WHAT is it???" as I slowed my car unsure which way I should turn or go!!!
She had forgotten to pack her vitamins.
It was a crazy moment for me and made my heart beat.
How easily a simple word can cause panic without giving any real information!
The idea to punish in order to clearly communicate what you don't like may seem simple and natural for many people, but for an animal who's natural instincts may not align with those of human constructs and societal values, it can be extremely confusing to navigate.
Take for example one of the most frustrating behaviors that many dog owners find teaching their dog; potty training. When a dog new to the household goes potty in the house where humans find it unacceptable, what are the different possible ways in which a dog might perceive a punishment? To a dog who hasn't been taught yet, much like a human infant or toddler, there is no such thing as an "appropriate" place to potty. They feel the need to go, and they relieve themselves. Going potty is a natural behavior. When you gotta go, you gotta go!
But say that dog was punished as it was taking a potty? The dog knows they have done something you disapprove of but "NO" doesn't give any information past that. They may think you are simply upset that they are going potty and be completely confused as to why, without realizing it is the 'where they are going' and not the 'what they are doing' that you are upset with. Even if they don't develop a fear of you, dogs have been bred over centuries to want to please us. Your dog may start to do whatever they can to not displease you without knowing the appropriate way to please you. So we see time and time again, many dogs who go through correction based potty training start to develop odd behavioral responses to the natural instinct to potty. They may start to ONLY potty when you aren't looking. This makes it even harder to catch them in the act, which is exactly what they are trying to avoid if they believe you simple are upset at catching them going potty. They may learn to hold it in longer than they should which could lead to the development of urinary tract infections, kidney stones, fecal incontinence or impaction, hemorrhoids, gastrointestinal perforation, or other health concerns.
Or even worse, what if they were punished hours after they went when they have completely forgotten about the act? They may believe you are simply upset about finding the potty mistake and start to HIDE where they go potty; under the table, in the corner, in the closet; anywhere they feel you may not find their mess.
Tip: Dogs associate reinforcement and punishment with the most recent event that took place or is currently taking place at the time. If you find yourself wanting to punish your dog for something they just did or suspect they are about to do, consider first all the possibilities of which behavior your dog would believe you would actually be punishing.
In any scenario where punishment is used to get the point across, an individual may start to develop behavioral fallout such as: anxiety and become a less confident animal, develop resentment towards the punisher for doling out "unfair" punishments, and can even develop aggression issues. Punishment can create distrust and a reluctance to cooperate.
If you are someone who uses punishment frequently for any and every little thing that your dog does, you dog will start to see you as someone with erratic and unreliable behavior issues (how ironic!) instead of a reasonable and fair LEADER. Leaders are individuals that we can trust for guidance because they have proven that they have your best interest in mind. "Bosses" are individuals that must be obeyed only "because they said so".
Individuals that overuse punishment or get upset often over seemingly unimportant things to a dog quickly become background noise. This effectively makes us redundant in the eyes of your companion. Commands and directions become things to ignore because "they're always nagging me about something or other". A confident dog may learn to ignore your tantrums as they learn that is your standard operating procedure; something you do because you are an erratic individual and not because you have a good reason for being upset.
And isn't that also how we humans view and judge other humans?
But my dog hasn't been affected negatively by the word "no". In fact, it gives him important information!
You're right. Some dogs aren't as fazed by being told "no". If it didn't work for any dogs then nobody would continue to use it. But the large majority of pet owners don't utilize no in a productive way and dogs are left confused.
Another pitfall to consider when using "no" or punishers is that it creates a dog who is so worried about making a mistake around you that their learning center shuts down.
This is frustrating in training situations when you need the dog to try to use his brain to figure out what it is that you want him to do. Instead of trying new things and excited to learn, you may end up with a dog that won't do anything because they are afraid of doing something wrong. "Every time I do anything (that is natural to me to do) my human says it's wrong and I get punished. If I just sit here and do nothing, then I can't possibly get punished."
A lesser but more common fallout is that your dog less likely to want to interact with you. Instead of being a source of interesting games and happiness you become that nagging person who isn't any fun to be around. This works against you in all training situations but most importantly it hinders your ability to teach a whiplash response RECALL behavior. Do you have a dog who doesn't listen to you when you call for them to come in the fact of distractions? Why would they ignore that distraction when they know they will only get in trouble or no fun games for coming back to you?
Think of it this way. Imagine you have a significant other, mother-in-law, family member, friend who, every time you call them on the phone, they start getting on your case about not calling them more often and that you're always too busy for them. Pretty soon, you will start to dread calling him (even though you may love them) because you know it means you will get an earful. The time between your calls to them may increase more and more because of this aversion to hearing them nag instead of doing the thing that they want you to do; call them more.
Instead, if they were to be excited every time they hear from you and have only praise to give you, you would start to look forward to engaging with them more! This person gives you good feelings and everyone likes to feel good about themselves!
What you CAN do instead of "NO"
So what CAN you do if you're not supposed to overuse "No"? There are a plethora of ways in which you can approach a behavioral issue. While I highly recommend finding and working with a qualified behaviorist who understands how to properly diagnose and solve an issue, there are a few things you should understand.
Instead of immediately trying to suppress an observed behavior, the first step is always to try to understand the function of that behavior. Every behavior is a response to something, either in the current environment or the past, external and even internal stimuli. What is your dog saying by exhibiting that behavior? Is your dog stressed, bored, afraid, protective, playful, excited, frustrated, anxious or attention seeking?
Take barking for example. Barking, like any other behavior, conveys a large range of emotional states. Barking can be a function of play, greetings, fear or alarm, excitement, separation anxiety, as well as be a territorial display, a way to alert you of something, or to simply demand your attention. If you approach each of these scenarios in exactly the same way, all you would be successful in is suppressing the barking without considering the reason why that barking is happening. When you suppress a behavioral function, you end up with an individual who still needs to communicate their needs. In some cases, it is relatively harmless. A bored dog may end up finding new and interesting ways to get your attention. But a fearful or territorial dog may realize that the barking isn't working and instead escalate to biting.
Once you've identified the function of a behavior, you can then determine how to respond to it. Common ways to deal with unwanted behaviors are DRI and DRO, desensitization, extinction, putting a behavior on cue, and changing the motivation for a behavior, using a positive interrupter to stop the behavior then redirecting their focus to another activity, teaching specific concepts, etc. While the methods used in a behavioral modification plan will differ depending on the particular issue, individuals and circumstances of everything involved in the shaping of your dog's behavior,
one thing is clear:
Teaching our furry companions effectively and humanely is entirely dependent on how we RESPOND to a behavior rather than how we REACT to it.
If your dog isn't already on a training plan, I would highly recommend hiring a trainer or learning about "clicker training". Clicker training, aka marker training, is the science based training method of operant conditioning. The clicker is a highly effective tool that can be used to teach dogs a variety of skills and behaviors. From fancy tricks, to a reliable recall, and even helping dogs with reactivity and aggression; clicker training empowers animals in the training process and fosters confidence and enthusiasm. Clicker training, when done properly, gives CLEAR, easily digestible information to your pooch. Of course, it is entirely possible to train without using a clicker, as I have several clients who preferred not using one.
**note: Please remember to consider the complexity and breadth of this topic and this article only serves as a guide and not a full dissertation.
Please reach out to me or another qualified behaviorist if you have any questions. We are here to help. Below I've included some common mistakes that many people make during their training journey which I will address more fully in the next blog post.
Why Positive Reinforcement may not be working for you (and what you can do to strengthen your bond with your dog)
There are quite a few more to add to this list but the goal here is not to overwhelm you.
Here are the most COMMON mistakes that beginners tends to make.
7 Most Common Beginner Mistakes:
1) The timing of delivery of reinforcement is off.
2) The reinforcement isn't motivating or interesting enough.
3) You are jumping ahead in your training plan too quickly.
4) You aren't being clear about what is expected.
5) You are unknowingly reinforcing the undesired behavior.
6) You overly repeat yourself effectively making yourself redundant.
7) You keep repeatedly asking for a behavior that your dog hasn't learned fluency with yet. This causes frustration in both you and your dog.
Remember: If one training plan isn't working, get creative and find new ways to engage with your dog. Don't get stuck on doing things in a way that doesn't make sense for your pup. There is more than one way to *ahem* skin a cat.