Your dog is behaving inappropriately. It’s embarrassing, it’s frustrating, it makes you look like a bad dog mom or dad. You just want the whirling dervish at the end of your leash to stop and behave. So, you pop and pull and yell, “No!” You are trying punishment to fix the problem.
Punishment is defined as anything that decreases a behavior. Obviously, when your dog is barking and lunging and completely out of control, the logical thing to do is to try to decrease the behavior.
Here’s the problem. All that barking and lunging is communication from your dog. What exactly are you punishing? Are you punishing the behavior or the communication?
Punishment decreases communication. Dogs have a large spectrum of body language and vocalizations to communicate with each other and with people. Humans also have a large spectrum of body language and vocalizations to communicate. Unfortunately, the two don’t always translate correctly. While dogs do “correct” other dogs, there are degrees. Some of it is just vocal, body movements, touching, or combinations of the above. Bullying behavior is not “corrective,” but oppressive. (Is your dog a bully?) The problem is that humans cannot replicate that language. We don’t have the vocal capacity or body language to do what dogs do. We just don’t.
Punishment decreases vocalization. We need dogs to communicate, and that includes some of the scary noises. We need the growl that precedes the bite, otherwise, the dog will just go directly for the bite. We need to know what the growl means and why it happened and teach the dog that growling isn’t needed. We don’t want to decrease the growl, we need to change the emotion that made the growl.
What you’re punishing isn’t always apparent. Barking and lunging isn’t always aggression. Can you tell the difference between excited barking and lunging and “I want to hurt you,” barking and lunging? It’s difficult. If you are punishing barking and lunging, are you correcting the excitement or the behavior? If the dog wants to hurt whatever they’re lunging at, is it out of fear? If so, are you correcting the fear or the lunging? Or even worse, are you adding to the fear because now the scary thing comes with punishment?
Punishment only works when the punisher is present. This means that the dog may walk wonderfully on a certain collar, but once that collar is removed the behavior returns. If good behavior is contingent on equipment, what happens when the equipment is off? Punishment doesn’t teach the dog what to do, it teaches them what not to do. Imagine your boss telling you what not to do all day and refusing to telling you what you should be doing. More than likely you’d be sitting in a chair doing nothing. As long as it’s not the wrong thing, you’re okay, right? Except it’s mind numbingly boring. Your boss goes out to lunch, what do you do? The punisher is gone, so now you get to play, relax, and maybe even get some work done.
Punishment can backfire. Grabbing a dog’s muzzle to get them to stop barking can make them afraid of hands. What happens when you need to check teeth or your dog is choking and you need to get into the mouth, but the dog is afraid? Punishment has consequences.
Punishment isn’t always effective. I see a lot of dog owners jerking the leash and yelling at their dogs and the dog is still barking and lunging. If the punishment isn’t decreasing the behavior, then it’s not a good choice. These are the situations when the dog is considered “stubborn.” The dog is not listening to the owner, so the dog is being “vindictive.” What’s really happening is the owner isn’t recognizing that the method they are using is ineffective, (and sometimes the behavior is actually getting worse.) It’s not the dog’s fault the method isn’t working. The owner needs to recognize that a different method is needed.
So, if the punishing isn’t working, now what? The opposite of punishing is reinforcing or rewarding. Rewarding good behavior that you like teaches the dog what to do. Instead of barking and lunging, you’d probably like the dog to walk nicely at your side, right? Give the dog a treat, praise, pets, or a toy when they are walking where you’d like. If they’re barking and lunging at other dogs or strangers or trash cans, increase the distance to those things until they are walking where you’d like and reward again. Make a mental note how far away you had to move to get good behavior and start moving closer in small steps. Training your dog doesn’t need to be confusing and overwhelming, a good reinforcement trainer will help.
Photo Credit: Anton Novoselov http://www.flickr.com/photos/antonnovoselov/