Why you shouldn’t use punishment as a dog training tool

I thought long and hard before writing this blog because I don’t want to be misunderstood. So before I start I want to make it very clear, I do not support the use of punishment as a dog training tool. This is intended as an honest guide as to what it is, and what happens to your dog when punishment is used. Hopefully, anyone considering it, will choose a different, more effective option.

So, aside from the obvious, there are important psychological reasons why punishment should be avoided. I want to talk about what happens to your dog when punishment is used. Why it might appear to work sometimes, and how it actually causes problems with mental health, anxiety, and can prevent future training from being effective.

What is punishment?

According to Oxford Languages (Googles Dictionary) punishment is defined as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution”

So, in dog training, punishment is used as a response to a behaviour that is designed to discourage the dog from repeating that behaviour. That means that to be effective, a punishment must be something the dog doesn’t want to happen and so will attempt to avoid in the future.

In order to do this, it must produce a fear emotion in the dog. The punishment must also be worse than the outcome the dog is trying to prevent with their original behaviour. For example, if a dog is barking at another dog because they are scared of it, the punishment must be scarier than the other dog is perceived to be. Otherwise, the dog would simply ignore your threat and continue to worry about the other dog.

a frightened looking pug type dog who is leaning away from whoever is holding the lead out of shot
In order for a punishment to be an effective dog training tool it must induce anxiety in the dog!

What isn’t punishment?

Almost anything can be made into a punishment if we try hard enough. But, if it doesn’t cause fear or anxiety, then it’s probably not a punishment. Ignoring your dog to help them settle faster is probably not a punishment, neither is tidying away toys so they can settle down for a nap. If they have anxiety related to their possessions, it might cause a problem if you do it in front of them though. Using a crate as a safe space or a chill zone is fine, throwing your dog in there for peeing on the carpet – that’s a punishment!

How to make it effective

So, in order to be effective, we know the punishment must be strong enough to cause fear in the dog. And not just any fear, it must be a greater fear than that of missing out on the thing the dog was originally trying to achieve.

The dog also has to know whats gone wrong, that means two things:

  1. We must be spot on with our timing
  2. The dog must be paying attention and in a learning state of mind
  3. We must be willing to stick it out and use it consistently

Even if we were able to achieve excellent timing, and the dog was in a learning mode, they still wouldn’t know what went wrong straight away. This means they would have to test the situation out quite a few times to figure out what behaviour to avoid, so repetition and consistency is an essential element.

If it’s not possible to tick all those boxes, then it won’t work as a punishment tool in training.

FYI – If we were able to achieve all these things, it would actually be much easier just to redirect the dog onto something more rewarding. When a dogs in their thinking brain, this is actually pretty easy to do.

Don’t feel bad

I also want to highlight that these techniques are frequently taught. There is good reason for this, as you’ll see. But, if you find yourself feeling regretful after reading this, then please don’t feel bad. Just give yourself a hug and move forward in a way you’re now comfortable with.

These techniques are often taught for three reasons. Firstly, they can appear to work and often quite quickly, I’ll explain more about why I used the word “appear” later.

Secondly, punishment makes us feel like we are “doing something”. If the behaviour happens in front of others we feel a social pressure to react to it.

And finally, it relieves our own frustration. It’s easy to get frustrated by our dogs when they won’t do what we expect. The training process doesn’t usually go in a straight line, and it’s easy to lose faith when it’s not going our way. An outburst directed at the source of the frustration can be a quick way to relieve that feeling.

Silent consequences of using punishment

Suppressed Behaviour

All dog behaviour is communication. Every action has a message behind it, for example it could be a cry for help, a request for something, or an expression of approval/disapproval. When we discourage any communication we discourage all communication.

By teaching a dog they won’t be listened to, they may go into a state of learned helplessness. This basically happens when the dog gives up. This is a dangerous situation for a dog to be in because he has learned that there is no point in communicating his discomfort or preferences, but the problem still exists.

A good example of this is a dog that has been punished for growling. After “successful” punishment he’ll stop growling. But, growling was his way of saying something was wrong. So, he will now internalise those feelings. It will look like the problem has been solved because the growling has stopped. But, if is put in the same uncomfortable situation again, he may manage to keep his anxiety in for only so long, but eventually it’ll get too much. He’s scared to growl because the punishment was “successful”. So he has little choice but to snap or bite. This would be labelled as unprovoked aggression, and the dog would get into big trouble.

But is that fair?

a husky type dog looking very uncomfortable at being hugged by a small child in a woolly, bobble hat.
A dog that suppresses his discomfort may bite without warning! Punishment is a risky dog training tool.

Supressed behaviour can also lead to redirection, frustration, and displaced behaviours. This means that feelings are still bottled up. But, instead of bursting out like they did in the other example, they are displayed later on.

Just like us, dogs can only cope with so much. When they bottle up feelings, this clogs up their brain and makes them less able to cope with other things. So one of two things will happen, either their brain will overflow with and they’ll go into overwhelm, this might happen at a random time and may also appear unprovoked. This could produce any kind of behaviour, but as an example they might have a tantrum, show random aggression, or show separation problems. They might also try to relieve the stress through destructive behaviours, or by picking on another member of the household – animal or human.


As we said at the start, in order to punish a dog effectively, the punishment must induce anxiety. This is especially tough on dogs as we have no way of warning them of the consequence.

Humans form contracts with each other spelling out possible consequences so we know what to expect. For example, “if you don’t do your homework, you can’t go out with your friends”. In dogs, we can’t do that. We have to wait for them to fail so we can enforce the punishment. Imagine living like that! Imagine being the child in the previous example, and only finding out they can’t go out to play with their friends after they failed to do their homework – that wouldn’t feel fair at all. It would really affect their trust for us, and make them suspicious of us in the future, and rightly so.

Dogs must fail several times to learn from a punishment

In dogs, not only do they have to fail first, they also have to do it several times. With the child, it was possible to explain their mistake to them afterwards. This isn’t possible with dogs, he must fail several times in order that he can figure out what exactly went wrong and adjust his behaviour to avoid the punishment.

If he doesn’t figure it out, which is very likely, he’ll simply generalise situations and responses. This is when anxiety becomes trauma. Imagine a dog that get’s grabbed and yelled at for jumping up at the front door. This dog will be in an excitable state (not a thinking state). So rather than learn not to jump up, he could come to fear that member of the family, the door area, raised voices, and/or sudden hand movements. He won’t learn to avoid jumping up, but will learn to avoid one or more aspects of the overall situation. If the punishment is repeated with a different set of circumstances, then the generalisation will spread to all men, or all loud noises, or all locations, or all hand movements.

Loss of trust

So we can see how quickly a dog could lose trust in us when we use punishment to change behaviour. In order for punishment to be effective we must be the source of anxiety and fear. Our dogs depend on us to keep them safe, so with very little repetition the dog will stop seeking comfort from us. They will no longer look to us to be their advocate, and will instead show more frustration and controlling behaviour. In time, this will break the caregiver/receiver relationship completely. They need this to thrive emotionally and behaviourally in our perplexing world. Using punishment will make them less likely to want to please us, which will make training harder in the long run, forcing the use of more coercive methods as we try to regain control. It’s a vicious circle.

Five Freedoms

The use of punishment is often in violation of the five freedoms of animal welfare too. These rules protect all animals, not just dogs. They were created by the RSPCA and define a minimum standard of living we must adhere to, and they are enforceable by law. In particular, aversive techniques may violate the dogs right to behave normally and their right to live free of pain and fear. E-collars and prong collars certainly violate these rules, and the dogs basic rights.

Conflict with other training plans

Some training and rehabilitation plans are only successful because they are built on the basis of trust and a strong bond between owner and dog. Separation anxiety and reactive behaviour in particular need a strong caregiving relationship. A rehabilitation plan for these dogs will include techniques that are designed to enhance that caregiver relationship. So, if punishment is used in other, unrelated, elements of the dogs training, it will undermine this work and progress will not be as expected.

So, what are your choices?

Here’s my handy visual comparison of punishment vs reward. Hopefully, this shows how both options require the same amount of work and skill, and they will both achieve a behaviour change. However, one comes with significantly more risks.


  • You’ll need perfect timing
  • Needs dog to be calm to learn
  • Consistency from you
  • An alternative behaviour encouraged
  • A strong deterrent

Possible Side effects

  • Relieves your frustration
  • Help you feel less helpless
  • Possible conflict with other training
  • More anxiety
  • Redirected or displaced behaviours
  • Breakdown of trust
  • Unprovoked aggression
  • Learned Helplessness
  • Loss of caregiver status


  • You’ll need perfect timing
  • Needs dog to be calm to learn
  • Consistency from you
  • An alternative behaviour encouraged
  • A decent reward

Possible Side effects

  • None

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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