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If a dog is punished for growling, he will learn to suppress such warnings and go straight for a bite.

Or so I’ve been told innumerable times, most recently in a promotional blurb distributed by Whole Dog Journal. The advertisement was for a new Ebook (just $7.95) that among other things, promises to explain

How punishing a growl will lead to biting without warning

Every trainer is familiar with this caveat. It’s promoted by experts, recited like gospel, and has become a staple argument against the use of positive punishment in dog training.

But where did it come from, and what proof exists to back it up?

The Prevailing Wisdom

An online search yields no shortage of confident exhortations, but few clues as to the origin of this claim. Here is a sampling (emphases mine):

Never Punish a Growling Dog. Many dog owners get understandably upset when a dog growls. Their first reaction is often to suppress the growling by scolding or punishing the dog. This is never a good idea. By teaching your dog that growling is not an acceptable behavior, you are taking away his ability to warn you that he may bite. Often we hear stories of dogs who bite with no warning. In many cases, this is because the owners trained the dog not to give a warning growl first. –

Never punish your dog for growling. This may seem counter-intuitive and may even go against the advice of your dog trainer or dog trainers you have seen on TV. If your dog growls at your child he is sending a clear warning that he is very uncomfortable with the actions or proximity of the child. Be grateful that your dog chose to warn with a growl rather than going straight to a bite. If you punish the growling, you may inhibit the warning growl the next time and the dog may bite without growling first. Punishment or scolding will not make the dog feel better about the child, in fact he may even feel more anxious and be even more likely to bite in the future, especially if you are not there to control the situation. Dog trainer Yamei Ross says, “Punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector. You don’t want to hear the noise, but the danger is still there.” –

Indeed, by punishing a growling dog, owners are not only depriving a dog from a very important warning tool, but are also proving to the dog that the owner is unreliable and unpredictable, significantly increasing the level of stress in the dog. More stress does not solve the problem, and next time the dog encounters the same situation he may appear to be OK with the situation when he is not. Eventually, a bite will come and this time there will be no advance warning. It will come straight and mean to the owner’s eyes –Ask A Behaviorist

Surveying the above, one might assume science had demonstrated this conclusively. After all, how else would such an oddly specific idea have become the prevailing wisdom?

More to the point: Why, in fifteen years of training dogs professionally, have I never seen this happen?

Maybe I’m an outlier, but regardless, something doesn’t add up. Right or wrong, dogs are punished for growling routinely. I’ve done it myself. Dogs do it to each other. And pet owners do it a lot. If the typical result of such temerity were in fact a dog that bit without warning, then why is the world not overrun with such dogs?

I began asking around among seasoned trainers and behavior consultants. Where did this pearl come from, and did they think it fake or genuine?

Responses ran the gamut, but the mean seemed to lie somewhere between moderate skepticism and luke warm endorsement. Some admitted to sharing my disbelief; some defended the claim’s veracity; and several offered up competing interpretations of how aggression sometimes escalates in situations where punishment has been applied.

Among the theory’s higher profile advocates is Pamela Dennison, who not only boasts first hand experience with such a dog, but actually took the trouble to write a book about him. That dog is Shadow, an adopted human-aggressive border collie and the subject of Bringing Light To Shadow: A Dog Trainer’s Diary, published in 2005.

Here is the most salient excerpt, highlighted at the start of chapter 5:

A growl is just a warning–nothing more. It is obvious to me that Shadow had been punished for growling by his previous owner. It is important not to punish the growl out of a dog because if you do, you end up with a flash biter–a dog that bites with no warning. A growling dog doesn’t want to bite–that’s why he is growling. Punishing the growl out of the dog is like telling a police officer that he doesn’t have to say “Stop or I’ll shoot.” A growl is a wake-up call to YOU, to show you that you need to work on desensitizing your dog to whatever it is that he growled at. The important part is not to take it personally, a “How dare you growl at me!” kind of attitude.

I have to wonder what made it so obvious to Dennison that Shadow had been punished for growling, or that this specifically had generated his flash biting, apart from her understanding that such a history could explain the behavior she was witnessing. To my mind, it seems the cause of Shadow’s biting was largely inferred from the same theory his case is enlisted to support.

Many of the examples raised in defense of the theory shared this cyclical format. Relatively few included both a before and after component. Those that did mainly showed only a loose correlation between the punishment and biting, and hardly any were clearly distinguishable from cases involving more straightforward escalation from growl to bite.

As for a scientific basis, no one pointed to any beyond suggesting the claim had been extrapolated from scientific principles, probably by Ian Dunbar.

I dug a bit further and found more references to Dunbar, so I contacted him.

Dunbar’s Hypothesis

He recalled introducing the idea in the late 80′s or early 90′s, and forwarded me a number of his articles from that period. I found the below (emphasis mine) within “Provocative Behavior,” based on a behavior column from the June 1989 issue of the AKC Gazette.

The ‘Solution’ Becomes The Problem

Limiting treatment to punishing the dog for growling generally makes matters worse. The dog is growling because it feels uptight in specific situations, for example, when approached by a stranger. If the dog is punished, it now has two reasons to be uptight: 1. the initial reason – lack of confidence, and 2. the prospect of correction, or punishment, by the  owner/handler, which further destroys the dog’s confidence.

In many cases, punishment may cause the growling to increase in frequency – a paradox of learning. A vicious circle develops, whereby the more the dog is punished, the more it has reason to growl and hence, the more it is punished etc. The ‘attack’ by the handler (the dog’s only immediate ally) tends to make the dog especially  nervous and ‘spooky’. It must be extremely unsettling for the dog to have its best friend suddenly turn against him in times of need. At first the dog can establish neither rhyme nor reason for the handler’s outbursts. Soon, however, the dog learns, the handler’s uneasiness is contingent upon the specific situation, e.g., approach by a stranger. As such, the stranger’s approach now becomes a cue, which forwarns the dog, its owner is about to get upset and punish the dog. Most dogs do not like it when their owners become anxious, apprehensive, or agitated and so, the dog now has a third reason to growl – to keep the stranger at bay, in order to prevent the owner from becomming uneasy.


For cases wherein punishment successfully inhibits growling. This is disasterous. Firstly, punishment must be extremely severe to stop a worried dog from growling. Extreme punishments in stressful situations are inhumane. Secondly, although the dog still feels uptight, it no longer gives warning. The dog still does not like strangers and it wants to growl, but dare not. This is akin to a smoke alarm with no batteries, or a time-bomb that does not tick. The dog’s temperament is still extremely unstable but on the surface, all appears to be well.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the above, it’s worth noting that Dunbar’s original hypothesis is more nuanced than many subsequent iterations, including those listed at the start of this post. Dunbar draws a clean line between punishing a dog for growling and punishing the growl itself (in the operant conditioning sense), suggesting the average effort to deter growling via punishment will not be successful at suppressing the behavior over time.

Pat Miller, editor of Whole Dog Journal, is also careful to maintain this distinction, as in the introductory Ebook blurb as well as the below from a frequently cited 2005 article.

Worst of all, and most significantly, if you succeed in suppressing the warning signs, you end up with a dog who bites without warning. He has learned that it’s not safe to warn, so he doesn’t. –Pat Miller, “Understanding Why Your Dog Growls: Why you should never punish a dog for growling”, 2005 WDJ

Yet the prospect of generating a stealth biter is continually promoted as a substantive risk, despite its depending on an unlikely coincidence of technical aptitude and poor judgement, whereby the punishment is skillfully applied but the overall strategy is woefully incompetent.

I put my doubts directly to Dunbar, who offered the following (emphasis mine):

Does punishing a dog for growling create a dog that bites without warning? Well, we are talking about two things here:

1. Inhibiting the dog’s growling   2. Provoking the dog to bite

Non-verbal and especially, aversive feedback often cause a bunch of additional problems. However, by its very definition, aversive punishment would absolutely inhibit the dog’s growling; if the frequency of growling is not reduced, then the aversive stimulus cannot be classified as a punishment! The most commonly used definition of punishment is “a stimulus that causes the immediately preceding behavior to decrease in frequency and be less likely to occur in the future.” And so, if the aversive stimulus were used effectively as a punishment, the dog would be less likely to growl and IF the underlying cause for the dog’s unease has not been resolved, the dog would be just as likely to bite, i.e., the dog may bite without warning (growling beforehand). Furthermore, should the dog associate the aversive punishment with a person, the dog may be more likely to bite without growling beforehand. (This may happen when a dog associates the punishment with the punisher, or when a dog is aversively punished in the presence of children for example.)

According to Dunbar, punishing a dog for growling may result in a bite without warning under certain conditions. Those would seem to include the punishment being relatively harsh, the punishment being highly successful, and the absence of productive work (such as a program of desensitization and counterconditioning) toward building confidence, tolerance, or positive associations.

This might explain why I’ve never experienced the phenomenon first hand, despite punishing dogs for growling myself a fair number of times. I can’t imagine using punishment as an isolated strategy, without training alternate behaviors or conditioning a better emotional response to triggers.

But I suspect the more fundamental reason I’ve not witnessed a dog’s warning signals being punished out, is that this is not how aggression mainly works.

Lost in Translation

Before looking at how aggression does escalate, let me briefly address the denial of growling as aggression. I’ve noticed a trend toward framing the growl as a highly desirable behavior, to the point of assigning it a near sacred status. Within this paradigm, the growl is acknowledged as an essentially peaceful alternative to an actual bite, and as such must be left unmolested (if not honored with rounds of applause).

Personally, I take issue with the notion that all growling should be interpreted as an excruciatingly polite request made under duress (as in the excerpt below).

A bite is at the far end of a long line of behaviors a dog uses to communicate displeasure or discomfort. To stop another dog, human, or other animal from doing what he perceives to be an inappropriate or threatening behavior, the dog often starts with body tension, hard eye contact, a freeze, pulling forward of the commissure (corners of the lips). These “please stop!” behaviors may escalate to include a growl, snarl (showing teeth), offensive barking, an air-snap (not making contact), and finally, an actual bite. The dog who does any or all of these things is saying, “Please don’t make me hurt you!” -Pat Miller, ”Teaching Bite Inhibition”, June 2010 WDJ

Undoubtedly, many dogs are pleading to avoid conflict with their growl. But I suspect others are saying something closer to “Bitch, don’t even think about taking my bone!” Bottom line, there’s a difference between the headspace of a dog that growls at his owner for attempting to move him off the couch, and one that growls at his owner out of fear of a beating.

Why does that matter? Because much of the weight of Dunbar’s theory seems to rest on one’s acceptance of the internal narrative assigned the growling dog. Give the hero a different script, and the ending no longer makes sense. Is the dog that growls and lunges at every dog he sees while pulling his owner down the street in fact repeatedly imploring, “Please stop, don’t make me hurt you,” or shouting “Get off my block or I’ll go medieval on your ass!”? I can’t answer that question and neither can Dunbar. But I can recognize one dog’s communication as potentially distinct from another’s, even if they both happen to include what we humans indiscriminately call growling. And I would argue that while a growl can be a laudable expression of restraint, it can also be something very different, something more genuinely offensive.

Shutting Off the Tap

In batting around these questions with trainers who work aggression cases regularly and hands on, some common themes emerged.

First, the implication that aggressive behaviors exist within discreet modules, such that one may be extracted while the rest remain functionally intact, doesn’t sit well. These behaviors are part of a natural sequence involving rising arousal levels. They may be let to proceed, may be accelerated, or may suffer interruption, but they cannot easily be rearranged or reassembled with parts missing.

As trainer Michael Shikashio, CDBC, describes the progression from growl to bite,

My thought is that it is more of a fluid escalation, one where you can “shut the water off” before it spills over the top of the glass.

I think most trainers would agree with this characterization, and in fact acknowledge that interrupting the “flow” with a well-timed punisher has the real potential to halt aggression in its tracks. In such cases, the punishment may be very mild, yet succeed at suppressing the arousal. Another trainer referred to this as response blocking.

Whatever one calls it, it’s a phenomenon with which trainers specializing in aggression are universally familiar. Yet the prevailing wisdom suggests a world in which it’s not even a remote possibility. In this world, punishment either doesn’t work at all (and possibly adds fuel to the fire), or it acts like a perfect surgical strike, annihilating individual behaviors with laser precision while leaving the rest of the picture untouched (and opening the door to biting without warning). And of course, the implication is that one can’t reliably predict which outcome will occur.

Meanwhile, the real capacity to suppress aggression via positive punishment without disastrous fallout is rarely acknowledged in public discussions.

Why is this?

Because a threat that is both profound and unavoidable, striking often and at random, is a powerful deterrent. And that’s ultimately the point, in my estimation, far ahead of enlightening anyone about anything.

An honest discussion of punishing aggression would reflect actual knowledge and actual probabilities. The prevailing wisdom regarding punishing warning signals, based on untested hypothesis and promoted by rumor, reflects neither.

Am I saying that punishing dogs for growling is typically a good idea? Not by a long shot. I may never have witnessed this strategy result in a stealth biter, but I’ve seen plenty of other unpleasantness.

Am I saying it’s impossible to generate such a dog via this formula? Again, no. But research and experience both suggest it is the least probable or even relevant consequence of punishing for posturing, growling, etc. Far more likely to get an immediate escalation of the conflict, a redirection of aggression toward the handler, or an interruption of events accompanied by a suppression of arousal. The fact that all of the above might also happen to include less growling is almost beside the point.

In Conclusion

The claim that punishing a dog for growling may cause him to bite without warning is made so frequently, and with such authority, that it should hold up to a little scrutiny, in my opinion. Yet a casual inspection reveals little foundation and lots of loose ends.

At minimum, it’s an exaggeration of how typical this phenomenon is, and an overstatement of our understanding of how aggression works. At worst, it’s a questionable idea whose main attraction is its utility as a scare tactic.

Aggression is complex, both as a suite of behaviors and as a problem to solve. If it weren’t, every trainer with a basic understanding of theory would be prepared to deal with it swiftly. Meanwhile, our understanding of it, both as individuals and as a profession, is neither crisp nor uniform. It is dynamic and evolving, hopefully in the direction of reality and away from myth.

My thanks to the many accomplished trainers who shared their opinions with me on this topic, and to Dr. Dunbar in particular for responding to my questions.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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[The following was written for Animal Behavior College in response to a request for an article on balanced training.]

I’m not big on labels, especially empty ones. Tags like positive or balanced don’t signify much, in my opinion, beyond the public image a trainer wishes to project. These are marketing terms, not definable training methods. Yet all of dogdom seems to have settled into the opinion that every trainer is either one or the other.

The more serious trainers I get to know from both sides of the supposed divide, the more I reject this idea. But if pressed, I do identify as balanced, and will continue to do so going forward, regardless how the scales of positive and negative or punishment and reinforcement truly fall within my programs. Balanced may not go a long way toward conveying what I do, but it’s not inaccurate, and I like to think it evokes something of what I actually mean when I use it to describe myself and my colleagues.

To my mind, balanced trainers are by and large pragmatic. We approach tools and methods sensibly, unfettered by politics or ideology. We do what works, within an ethical framework involving fair expectations, clear communication, and respect for the dog in front of us. This may mean building a foundation of understanding and enthusiasm via positive reinforcement, then layering instructional corrections overtop to enhance reliability and steadiness under distraction. It may mean choosing negative reinforcement or positive punishment first, if so doing resolves a problem safely and efficiently. In all cases, it means remaining flexible, reading the dog at every turn, and keeping all options on the table.

Balanced training is unapologetically results oriented. Results matter, both to the client rightly expecting some deliverables, and to the dog, whose quality of life may ultimately depend a great deal more on whether his owner may walk him confidently in public or take him hiking off-leash, than on which quadrants of operant conditioning happened to land the dog such opportunities. Good results also represent the most reliable indicator that a given method is sound, which is not to say ends justify means. Means, particularly highly aversive or costly ones, are justified by the knowledge and experience that they represent the optimal path toward a good result, not the mere hope of achieving one. Being results oriented is not about being a cowboy. It is about being open to both new and traditional tools and methods as long as they have practical utility, and being prepared to do some amount of internal calculus before settling on the best approach.

Photo courtesy of Lionheart K9

Balanced trainers acknowledge that the deliberate inclusion of aversives within a training program is neither inhumane nor unscientific. Our commitment to canine welfare and fostering healthy relationships between dogs and people does not inhibit us from taking ownership of those aversives we employ. We focus our energies on applying them productively and responsibly, whether via electronic collar or head halter, with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Denying their legitimate (and largely unavoidable) role in training and behavior modification both constrains trainers unnecessarily and inhibits frank discussion of how more socially acceptable tools and protocols actually work.

There have been some major shifts in dog training culture over the past several decades. On the upside, there’s been a great surge of interest and innovation, along with a new emphasis on ethical standards and humane methods. On the downside, it has become highly politicized, and lousy with specious claims driven by competition over market share. Balanced trainers recognize their work as existing on a continuum with what dog men have been doing for centuries, not as a departure so radical as to deny their influence and contributions to our field. Even if our approach bears little outward resemblance to the training of old, we refuse to reject traditional tools based on popular trends, and balk at the arrogant dismissal of generations of skilled and accomplished trainers as backward thinking relics.

In the end, it’s a matter of devotion to craft ahead of devotion to methodology.

Does every trainer currently advertising himself as balanced conform to my private definition? No, but I think it holds true for the balanced trainers I know best and attempt to model myself after, including a number who do not identify as such.

Whether positive trainers will mainly sympathize with or feel excluded by the above, I cannot guess. But I invite them to rethink the utility of defining ourselves according to terms that are ultimately more divisive than descriptive, and to help move our industry away from empty labels and toward an honest discussion of what we really do and why.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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I am a balanced trainer. I use a wide range of tools and approaches as I see fit, and have no moral or ethical qualms with using punishment skillfully and responsibly to meet training goals. I view dog training pragmatically, as a matter of choosing the optimal path for each dog/client team, respectful of individual needs and preferences, but not bound up in specious notions of self-perfection or personal growth.

I do not see dog training as a contest between me and the dog, and have come to bitterly resent the appropriation of the term “balanced” by trainers whose attitude toward dogs is essentially combative.

Forcing unnecessary confrontations is no more “balanced” than a head halter is “positive”. It’s also nothing like genuine leadership, which involves inspiring trust and respect, providing guidance when needed, setting fair boundaries, and creating stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in the context of working with aggression, yet one still hears trainers refer to gloving up and doing battle in such cases, as if resolving aggression issues was simply a matter of going mano a mano.

I tend to attribute this mindset to the combined influence of dog training as television drama, our natural fascination with aggression and its traditional role as a professional proving ground, and the old school myth that one need bring aggression out in order to address it.

Of course, most balanced trainers are not actively looking for a fight. But some are clearly a little too eager to prove they can win a confrontation, or maybe just too comfortable in that arena to bother avoiding one. I would have to put Cesar Milan in the latter category, as his obvious confidence in his physical prowess seems to tempt him into triggering aggression fairly casually.  And in balanced trainer circles, one frequently encounters those who seem to be courting aggression unnecessarily, and, in some cases, suffering the consequences.

Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting that every trainer who’s ever been bitten was asking for it.

I’ve been bitten a number of times, once trying to get a tennis ball away from a
bull mastiff at a dog park before she swallowed it, once breaking up a fight,
once leashing up a kennel-crazy dogo-mix, once in the leg (redirected
aggression), and once because I reflexively reached for the collar of an
aggressive Rottweiler in a moment of confusion (he’d just gotten loose from
another handler). Those were all legit bites requiring medical attention. The
last one was probably four years ago. But none occurred in a training context.

The only time I’ve been bitten while training a dog was around two years ago, when I was nipped by a year-old cattle dog with zero bite inhibition. (Before anyone starts an argument over the meaning of bite inhibition, let me note that this cattle dog was not protesting anything, just executing a Touch command.) I honestly don’t remember if I needed a band aid, but I know I didn’t take it personally.

Again, good trainers can occasionally get bitten in the course of training. But good trainers are damn careful. They not only aren’t looking for a fight, but know how to avoid stumbling into one. As to how that’s accomplished, there are clearly more ways than one. I can only speak for myself, and don’t consider myself an expert, despite a reasonably good track record.

First, I don’t generally use muzzles in training contexts. I own a bunch and use them occasionally while socializing an aggressive dog. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use muzzles while training, just saying I don’t. They interfere with the dog’s demonstration of natural body language, and cause most to feel nervous and/or compromised, potentially inhibiting normal behavior. They can also embolden the handler to take greater risks, as with pushing a dog too close to–or over–threshold. As a friend who worked as a motorcycle messenger once expounded, “I ride a lot more carefully when not wearing a helmet.” Personally, I don’t find helmets to be an issue. But a muzzle is a game changer, and it’s a game I don’t care to play.

Now I will employ a second line, either in conjunction with a second handler, or a tethered to a wall or post. That’s kept me safe in cases where I suspected the dog might come up the leash. And at least in the colder months, I’ve been known to strategically don my trusty pair of Carhartt overalls, just in case.

I don’t train aggressive dogs on psychotropic meds, and I don’t train aggressive
dogs I can’t read, or feel genuinely uncomfortable with. In at least two cases,
that’s meant instructing the client without handling the dog myself at all. In
one case, it meant referring the client out. That dog should probably have been
euthanized (and maybe has been).

I’m not suggesting I read all dogs with ease, by the way, only that I happen to be able to read most of the ones that present to me as clients. There are frankly certain breeds I see so infrequently, that I would hesitate to work with a genuinely aggressive one. (Akitas come to mind.) Bully breeds, on the other hand, are my bread and butter, so I’ve had a lot more practice reading them (and they’re just easier, too, I suspect).

Mostly, I train the dog at whatever pace he needs, in order to keep him
fundamentally on board with the project. That means keeping a sharp eye on the
threshold for a bite at any given moment, and maintaining a keen awareness of
the dog’s overall stress level. Sometimes, it means breaking lessons down into
very tiny steps, so as not to risk confusion or frustration. Sometimes (not
often) it means backing out of an exercise as gracefully as possible, and
revisiting it more carefully or intelligently just a little later on.

I still remember one session with a two-year-old American bulldog mix, newly enrolled in a board/train program. He’d been impressively responsive to a number of introductory exercises, seemed quite enthusiastic, and took the occasional correction totally in stride…until I decided to review his down command. He visibly tensed and braced himself. I went slowly, knowing I had unwittingly trespassed onto precarious ground. I’d given the cue, and felt obliged to enforce it. But just as he averted his gaze in the manner of a dog preparing to bite, I made the call to abort the exercise, returning briefly to something less stressful and ending on a high note, rather than a trip to the emergency room.

Not so long after that, I found myself listening to a young enthusiastic trainer explaining how she’d been bitten in the course of demonstrating an exercise with a client dog. She’d gotten herself into an intractable situation in the course of enforcing a command, and wound up the story with the words, “But you know, you can’t back down. You gotta win, right?”

Sure, if you call that winning.

I acknowledge skillful training can include conflict between dog and handler. But I’m against courting such conflicts
(whether intentionally or carelessly) or rushing headlong into them.

Training should be a collaboration, not between equals, but between parties that
share mutual respect. Sometimes, I think that respect is expressed by a trainer
backing off, and coming back with a better strategy, rather than coming back
with more gear.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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If your dog was to be subjected to an aversive, would you rather it occurred randomly or control the timing yourself?

I put this question to a rational positive-reinforcement trainer, who responded unhesitatingly that she would prefer to control the timing of the aversive, so as to minimize fallout, and in order to potentially create some practical inhibition.

The logic of her choice hinges on a pair of sensible assumptions. First, that controlling an aversive (even just the timing) naturally lends any competent handler the opportunity to avoid (or at least temper) detrimental associations; second, that the well-timed application of an aversive has potential utility. Of course, she would prefer to avoid aversives altogether, and clearly stated so.

No surprise, given the well-publicized risks. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior,

the potential adverse effects of punishment [include] but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people[1]

Moreover, we are warned that risks such as extreme generalized fear and negative associations with the dog’s environment or handler, can occur “regardless of the strength of the punishment.”

This last claim must rest on belief in a dark sort of behavioral homeopathy, whereby the magical effects of punishment [2] endure despite its infinite dilution.

But there is another problem. If we accept that the experience of even mild punishment carries an arguably prohibitive level of risk, and we acknowledge that the deliberate application of an aversive is nonetheless safer in obvious respects than allowing exposure to randomly occurring ones, how is it that trainers come to fret over distilling off every atom of punishment from their training programs, while blithely acknowledging that naturally occurring aversives are both largely unavoidable and relatively innocuous?

One would think such events as getting stepped on or startled would carry a risk (of potentially extreme and irreversible fallout) equal to that borne by the deliberate application of a comparable aversive. Yet few cautionary tales exist to illustrate these hazards, such as happen to dogs every day of their

lives, often right in the presence of their owners or at their owners’ very hands.

Even the authors of some of the most dire warnings regarding the purposeful use of aversives to punish behavior, seem to understand that the bulk of natural or accidentally inflicted aversives are fairly harmless.

I imagine it is intuitively obvious to them, as it is to me and to the dog-owning public, that a dog’s stubbing its toe while chasing a frisbee is unlikely to sour him on the game or ruin his relationship with the person who threw it.

So, what makes the demon punishment so extra-special potent, and its measured application so inescapably treacherous, compared to those unplanned aversives our dogs regularly suffer and gracefully overcome?

Aversives v. Punishment

Karen Pryor explains the critical distinction in a 2007 blog post (emphasis mine):

There’s a difference between aversive events and punishment. Life is full of aversive events—it rains, you stub your toe, the train leaves without you. These things happen to all of us, and to our pets, and we don’t control when or if they occur. Kay Laurence has an amusing paragraph about the aversive events that befall her Gordon setters (all of which they ignore)—falling off the bed, running into door posts, and more (read that article here).

In general, all that we learn from the inevitable aversives in daily life is to avoid them if we can.

On the other hand, a punishment is something aversive that you do on purpose. It may be contingent on a behavior, and it may stop or interrupt that behavior—which reinforces YOU for punishing, so watch out for that.

I find this explanation notable for several reasons.

First, it happens to be framed in response (albeit indirect) to the question, “Can you teach everything without punishment?”, yet that question is in no way addressed either by the above or within the remainder of Pryor’s comments.

It does, however, illustrate the tendency to frame discussions on tools and methods in terms of human intent, rather than in terms of the dog’s actual experience.

It’s a common tendency–and problematic, as when assumptions regarding the intention behind either the design or application of a given tool are offered as proxy for an objective analysis of how the tool actually operates or is actually applied.

Consider the myth, held true by many and even promoted by such authorities as Dr. Karen Overall, that head-halters are non-aversive. It’s an error that persists despite the reality that dogs do not casually accept wearing them, nor reliably tolerate being steered or restrained with their assistance.

It’s surprising that a phenomenon so widely observed and even scientifically documented [3] would be so widely ignored. But if we accept that our intentions are directly relevant to any and all contemplations of tools and methods, it’s only a small leap to imagine they may represent an acceptable standard of measurement.

And if we buy that, head-halters clearly rate as non-aversive by virtue of their gentle intention (indicated right there on the package), whereas prong and electronic collars may fairly be judged inhumane by virtue of being, as Dr. Overall put it in a 2007 editorial, “rooted in an adversarial, confrontational interaction with the dog.”[4]

Why would anyone invest in a scheme so clearly divorced from objective analysis?

For starters, it allows one to rationalize bypassing the complicated business of assessing how a given dog experiences a given tool wielded by a given trainer under given circumstances, instead suggesting a far easier equation, according to which one need only infer a tool’s intention in order to gauge its virtue.

This represents a boon, of course, for the purveyors of tools designed more for the purpose of persuading us of their kindness than actually facilitating it, as well as for anyone in the business of evoking faith in good intentions above promoting trust in skill or effectiveness. Moreover, substituting cursory judgements for true investigation is a real time-saver, freeing one up to concentrate one’s efforts on cementing the stigma attached to those intentions deemed impure, or on promoting the prohibition of those tools and methods associated with them.

But most importantly, it diverts attention from the fact that to a dog, an aversive is just an aversive, whether willfully administered or the result of mere clumsiness, a point that–if fully appreciated–would stand to undermine the endowment of punishment with extra-normal danger and potency.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for or against specific equipment or methods. I’m suggesting good intentions wield little to no dependable influence over how much a dog gains or suffers. And until we make a practice as an industry of evaluating the effect of our actions independently from the righteousness of our intentions, we may remain blind to those cases where to two are in conflict.

“I Can’t…”

Suzanne Clothier lately posted some thoughts on punishment under the title “I had to…”. On her blog, she takes positive trainers to task for dodging responsibility in instances where they’ve made the choice to punish. She offers examples of what she evidently considers lame excuses, like “the client was frustrated,” or “I had tried everything else.” And she challenges trainers to do better:

Replacing the phrase “I had to. . .” with “I chose to. . .” puts the responsibility where it belongs: on the trainer who made the choice to use techniques or equipment. It helps us all remember that in making that choice, by definition we excluded other possibilities. When using force, we need to be very clear that in discarding other options, other possible solutions, we may also be choosing to limit what is possible when we push ourselves.

For the record, I agree force is often used too casually, without due consideration of alternate strategies, and that acting out of mere convenience or fustration should be roundly discouraged. I also believe in the importance of accountability in dog training across the board. However, I was struck reading Clothier’s article by what seemed a misplaced focus on the moral peril (for lack of a better term) associated with use of force, rather than on any harm–real or presumed–that might be dealt the dog as a result.

She details an event involving a young Labrador who’d just head-butted her very hard for the second time, and describes the moment in which she considered her options:

I began to think, “One good correction might get through this dog’s thick skull.” I surprised myself by thinking that, but then I further shocked myself (and some of the audience) when I asked the handler explicity for permission to use a physical correction on her dog. She agreed, trusting me as a trainer to do right by her dog.

In that moment when she trustingly agreed to let me use force on her dog, I found something in myself that surprised me further: a little voice that challenged me to push myself further, to help this dog without force. It was like having a gauntlet thrown down at my feet. Do it without force, without ego, without justifying force.

Compelling words. But what does Clothier’s internal struggle have to do with the needs of this somewhat thick-headed young dog?

We are meant to assume he benefited from Clothier’s suppression of her ego, to understand that what he needed most in that pivotal moment, was not “one good correction,” but rather for Clothier to “take up the gauntlet” and turn the other cheek.

But it’s impossible to deduce that from Clothier’s narrative, because it has nothing to do with the dog’s experience.

Instead, she gives us a parable about overcoming temptation and perfecting one’s intention. Good stuff from a personal improvement standpoint, but no substitute for a reasoned consideration of whether a correction might have been productive. Granted, not the point. But what is??

That we are accountable for our choices to use force, yes. That one should not act out of ego or vengeance, clearly. But was that the temptation Clothier resisted? Remember, she didn’t just refrain from lashing out in anger. She suppressed the instinct to consider punishment as an option.

Despite Clothier’s drawing the familiar analogy between the application of a training correction and the specter of wife-beating, this is ultimately not a lesson in tempering one’s anger or shoring up one’s patience. It is a lesson in training one’s inner voice to distrust one’s rational mind.

Clothier equates the use of aversives with the use of force, and equates force with violence. She frames its contemplation as a sign of moral weakness, and the decision to use “force” as a failure by definition:

Whatever the answer, the solution is to recognize where I went wrong.

Dog training is many things, including a lesson in kindness and patience. But it should not be exploited as a proving ground for fringe notions of moral perfection.

If “I had to…” is a cop-out, then so is ”I can’t…”  After all, in making that choice, aren’t we also “choosing to limit what is possible”?

Bible and Hatchet

Meanwhile, a generation of trainers is being bullied into signing blood oaths constraining them from ever practicing the productive application of aversives.

Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, and Victoria Stillwell all require pledges from their disciples, while selling the public on the idea that hobbling oneself with a vow of irrational temperance is a mark of enlightenment.

The result is a murky and oppressive climate, often dominated by vitriol and intolerance, as in Dr. Karen Overall’s unsubtle insinuation that owning a choke, prong, or electronic collar may lead to child and spousal abuse:

Without exception, such devices will make my anxious patients worse and allow the anger level of my clients to reach levels that are not helpful and may be dangerous. The link between dog abuse and spousal/child abuse is now well-established (Ascione and Arkow, 1999; Lockwood and Ascione, 1998).[4]

Like Pryor’s warning to beware the utility of punishment, lest one’s urge to punish be strengthened, Overall here concerns herself with the threat punishment poses to us. It’s a clumsy argument at best, and less than cleanly scientific. But it succeeds in promoting the point that punishment is poisonous and intoxicating, while skirting the question of what that has to do with training a dog.

Child abuse is real. Animal abuse is real. Drunkenness is real. It’s a fact there are cretins and criminals within our ranks.

Likewise, there’s a history of countering such abuses with fear-mongering, misinformation, and hyperbole. And science, or some fractured fairy tale version of it, has been drafted into these campaigns before.

These tactics are effective, which I’ve heard is reinforcing. But they are a rejection of reason, and an abuse of the influence their authors wield. It’s as old school as tent revivals and temperance unions, and as backward as beating a dog.

There are solid arguments for taking care in applying aversives. But there is no credible foundation, scientific or ethical, for the wholesale exclusion of aversives from a training program, except if one accepts the idea that the very willingness to punish is perverse, and so fit to be stigmatized and suppressed.

Take away that belief, and the dragon vanishes. One is left with a serviceable tool and a solvable problem. The dog doesn’t know you are putting your soul at risk. He doesn’t even need to know you did it on purpose.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not alchemy.

It’s just good bar tending.


1. AVSAB Position Statement: The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals. 2007.

2. I use the term “punishment” here and throughout this post in the same arguably vague way as the sources I’m quoting, to denote the deliberate application of an aversive to discourage behavior.

3. L. I. Haug, B. V. Beavera and M. T. Longneckerb, Comparison of dogs’ reactions to four different head collars, Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 79, Issue 1, 20 September 2002, Pages 53-61

4. Overall, K.L., 2007. Considerations for shock and ‘training’ collars: Concerns from and for the working dog community. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Res.2, page 106.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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Rosie came to me last month for a 1-week training program, while her owner, a recent transplant from England, recovered from the metatarsal fracture she’d suffered while walking Rosie on-leash. There was mention of improper footwear, but the real issue seemed to be that at 1-yr-old Rosie had no leash manners whatever. Fact was that back in England, where walks were staged in open fields and marshes and leashes weren’t a big part of life, she hadn’t needed any.

She also hadn’t needed to go up and down stairs, as it turns out.

I’ve taught a few dogs to do stairs over the years, figured it couldn’t be too challenging to accomplish with a young and biddable Lab.

Well, Rosie had the most severe stairs phobia I’d ever seen. No amount of cheese, sausage, or coaxing would get her up any farther than her front end could easily reach while keeping her hind feet safely planted on terra firma.

Gentle “suggestions” that she ought to consider bringing up her rear were met by sheer panic, including throwing her full weight backward and away from the steps. For the record, I did try different types and quantities of steps, and even a low table, always with the same result. I also saw no signs of physical pain or disability.

I’m very reluctant to use force or correction in addressing a phobia, but several things occurred to me in this case. First, that running-backward-at-full-tilt nonsense was going to get someone’s neck broken one day if allowed to persist. Second, it might easily take months and untold quantities of sausage to get this dog up a flight of stairs if the choice was left up to her. Third, this was not a fearful dog generally, despite her paranoia of stairs, so it seemed entirely likely that once she discovered she was in fact perfectly capable of moving up and down stairs without the earth opening up and swallowing her, she might actually enjoy doing so.

Thus, with some reluctance, I popped on her prong collar, and allowed her to discover the downside of running backward away from stairs. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked like gangbusters, let me tell you. With that option off the table, she quickly found the courage to attack the stairs (and the sausage). By the following day, she was happily trotting up and down unbidden, and looking Very Pleased With Herself.

Of course, I was concerned that she might fail to generalize, and continue to balk at the stairs in her house. But her owners reported that as soon as they walked through the front door, she proceeded to show off her new-found confidence. Here is the note I got yesterday along with the above video:

Hi Ruth,
Thought you might like to see Rosie starring in her very own movie.
Before you had her the stair phobia was so bad she hated to even walk by our staircases.
We can’t believe you did so much with her in just one week.
Her leash manners are now so good a neighbor yesterday didn’t recognize her.
Thank you so much.
With all good wishes
Mary and Richard

I gambled a bit on this one, not usually my style, but there you have it. Maybe I was channelling my inner Cesar Millan (a strangely repelling thought). In truth, this was one of those rare training sessions that would have made for excellent television. And, like Cesar, I don’t recommend that anyone try this at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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