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The real reason I don’t use punishment to train dogs.

As a force-free dog trainer in a community that has more punishment-based trainers than not, I spend a lot of time justifying my methods to both owners and other trainers, and trying to change the status quo. It’s a slow and sometimes frustrating process, but I’m definitely seeing more dogs being walked on harnesses and flat collars than I used to, and fewer prong and choke chains. It’s an uphill battle, and an important part of that battle is being able to speak your truth without judging and using facts to back yourself up.

The tricky part about trying to speak to people who have used punishment with their dogs before is that it may have worked. And like dogs, humans do what works. So you’ll often hear that those methods worked in reducing the dog’s unwanted behavior, that their relationship with their dog was wonderful because of it, and that their dog never developed resource guarding or reactivity (two examples of behavioral fallout that can happen when applying aversive techniques and dominance theory). And that may be true. If used correctly, punishment can work. That’s why for so long it was the main tool for trainers to use. If it never worked, it wouldn’t have been a popular option. This is where force-free trainers will typically respond by commenting on the efficacy of force-free training, and the possibility of behavioral fallout due to aversive stimuli using old-fashioned methods. We have the science to back ourselves up that coercion can cause serious behavioral repercussions, just look at Murray Sidman’s “Reflections on Behavior Analysis and Coercion”.

We must appeal to science and facts when we’re making the argument for force-free training to people who have seen punishment work, because it speaks to it’s efficacy and safety. But the science and the hard facts behind force-free training are NOT actually the biggest reason that I will not use punishment or aversive stimuli in my training.The real reason is that I think it is a moral and ethical imperative that we train using the least harmful and most effective methods available to us.

Call me a bleeding heart hippie, but positive dog training appeals to both my mind and heart. When we make the choice to bring a member of a different species into our home, should we not be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep that animal safe? When we, the supposedly superior species with our big giant cerebral cortex, choose to take another species into our care, how can we possibly justify using compulsion and coercion to force them to do what we want when there are more humane and engaging methods at our disposal?

My absolute favorite quote in the world is from Maya Angelou. It’s simple and sweet.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

We know better now. We know that our dogs are not trying to overthrow us for world domination. We know that usually if they’re ignoring us it’s OUR fault as their guardians for not properly proofing them, not theirs. We know that we can effectively teach our dogs to walk at our side using a clicker and treats, instead of harsh leash corrections and intimidation. We know that a growling dog, more often than not, is fearful, not ‘dominant’. And now that we know better, we need to do better. Don’t our best friends deserve at least that much?


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