Punishment forms an integral part of the society we live in.

If you commit a crime, you get punished accordingly. If you break the rules at work or you don’t do your work, you will get a few warnings, eventually leading to dismissal. Even as children we get taught that when you do something you are not supposed to do, something bad will happen to you. Punishment is effective because it shows us that there are consequences to our actions. We know very well, even prior to doing something wrong that, there will be some form of punishment waiting, and we have the ability to choose: is it worth it? Am I going to do the right thing or am I going to take the punishment?

Now, when I said that punishment forms an integral part of our society, I left something out: our society is a HUMAN society. Dogs are not human, they are animals. So why do we reckon it’s okay to enforce human rules on them? It’s easy to say a dog is ‘just an animal’, but somehow some people find it hard to understand what this means. It means that a dog cannot reason. A dog’s brain simply doesn’t allow him to tell himself that “I am not allowed to chew on this shoe, and if I do my human will punish me when she gets home.” To take this a bit further, once again remember that the dog is an animal living in a human world: he DOES NOT know how he is supposed to act in our world! When a pup gets born, he does not receive a manual titled How to live with humans. They really have nothing to go on!

So why do dogs do the things they do? There are a few reasons:

  • Instinct and genetics. Certain behaviours, for example digging in Terriers, simply come naturally and is a very normal thing for your dog to do.
  • When something is wrong in your dog’s life, he might try to make himself feel better. Chewing makes dogs feel better. Or think of that poor dog who sits outside his house all day, all alone with nothing to do. Woof, woof, woof, woof…. non-stop. This type of barking is a self-soothing behaviour; he is trying to make himself feel better.

This is not a complete list by far, but one thing that does NOT belong on this list is something I hear almost every day: “My dog knows exactly what he did wrong. He is getting back at me and he looks so guilty.” This is simply not true and is a case of us assigning human qualities to our dogs. Actual research on the canine brain shows that dogs are not capable of being spiteful. And that guilty look? Well, that is you not knowing how to read a dog’s body language. This look is actually your dog responding to your body language! You see what the dog did, and now you are throwing out subtle signs that you are not happy at all. Dogs are masters of reading body language – they cannot speak and body language is their main form of communication. That guilty look is really your dog telling you that you are scaring him a bit, since he does not understand why you are acting so angry all of a sudden.

Punishment is not the answer

Considering that dogs don’t mean to make us angry and they don’t know what we expect of them, how much sense does it make to start dishing out punishment? Not much at all. Let’s look at a few different scenarios and explore in a bit more detail how the dog perceives punishment:

You arrive home after a long day at work only to find that your dog has destroyed/chewed up something in the home. You get angry, and start shouting, perhaps even smacking your dog.

The first thing to remember here is that dogs live in the moment. He has no way of associating what he has done an hour ago with your angry behaviour. Yes, he has that ‘guilty’ look – because you are scaring him while he is simply happy to see you after a day without you. Doing this serves no purpose. So many people expect their dogs to be protective of them. To motivate your dog to be this way, it’s only fair that he feels safe with you, and with inappropriate punishment you’ll achieve the exact opposite.

You catch your dog peeing in the house. You feel that if you punish him while he is doing it it will help him understand what he is doing wrong.

Now we have to once again keep in mind how dogs think. Your dog has no way of knowing that you want him to eliminate outside. If he is going inside the house you either didn’t train him sufficiently, or there is another issue at play. So, when you punish in this instance, the dog thinks that he is punished for the act of urinating, and NOT for urinating inside the house. Now you can only imagine the psychological damage of needing the loo, but not wanting to use it out of fear of punishment. As for the old technique of rubbing the dog’s nose in his own excrement, I don’t even feel the need to revert to science to explain that it is barbaric and pointless.

Your dog won’t stop barking, so you shout at him.

Dogs cannot distinguish between positive and negative attention. When you are shouting at him, he thinks you are giving him attention! Dogs love attention – so you have just encouraged him to continue barking.

Your dog growls at your child, so you punish him.

This is a big one. Doing this could actually lead to that dog eventually biting. When a dog growls at your child, you should be thanking him! Why? He warned, but he didn’t bite! A dog that is growling is telling you that he is not comfortable – at this point you tell the child to stop whatever he was doing. Now, if you don’t allow the dog to growl, next time he is uncomfortable in a situation he might leave out the growling and go straight to biting. Something to think about!

Some might say that in their experience, punishment works. And they would be right. Done correctly, it does work. But very few dog owners know the scientifically correct way to punish and animal. If you do it wrong, it can be argued that it is simply abuse. Not to mention the damage to the bond between you and your dog. Aggression breeds aggression. To the trained eye, it is often clearly visible in a dog’s personality if he has had to endure too much punishment. The dog lacks confidence and reaches a point where he is too scared to really do anything at all. It’s almost as if the dog feels that he is not free to just be a dog, and it’s quite sad. If your dog excessively indulges in an unacceptable behaviour there might be a problem in the dog’s life. It is worth it to consult with a qualified behaviourist – for your own sanity as well as your dog’s mental wellbeing.