If I don’t tell my dog off, how do they know they’ve done something wrong?

November 09, 2022
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Is telling your dog off the best way to get them to make the best choices? Is is really important that they know that they have done something wrong?

How does my dog know if they’ve done something wrong if I don’t tell them off?

There are quite a lot of angles to this question.

Firstly, let’s have a look at the options we have for reward and punishment:

ReinforcementPositive reinforcement (R+)Negative reinforcement (R-)
PunishmentPositive punishment (P+)Negative punishment (P-)
The four operant contingencies

This is known as the four operant contingencies but it basically just summarises how we can either give our dogs a positive experience (positive reinforcement), remove a positive experience (negative punishment), give a negative experience (positive punishment) or remove a negative experience (negative reinforcement).  Examples of what this means when training your dog could be as follows:

ReinforcementGive a treat, praise or play with your dog.Slip lead loosens when the dog stops pulling.
PunishmentJerk on the lead, shock collars, shouting at your dog.Take away a toy or treat.  Turn your back on your dog – remove your attention.
What this means

So that’s the geeky theory bit!

When we use treats and rewards we are using Positive Reinforcement.  However, as our dogs don’t get the reward if they don’t do the behaviour we want, we are (whether we like it or not) also using negative punishment by not rewarding when our dog doesn’t do what we are asking.

By telling our dogs off we are using positive punishment, in other words we are doing something which our dogs find unpleasant.  Or by using a slip lead we are using negative reinforcement by reinforcing a loose lead by taking away the pain and choking sensation.

We know from numerous scientific studies that positive, reward-based methods are more effective and negative, aversive methods are likely to have unintended, negative consequences.

“Despite the methodological concerns, it appears that aversive training methods have undesirable unintended outcomes and that using them puts dogs’ welfare at risk. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that aversive training methods are more effective than reward-based training methods. At least 3 studies in this review suggest that the opposite might be true in both pets and working dogs. Because this appears to be the case, it is recommended that the dog training community embrace reward-based training and avoid, as much as possible, training methods that include aversion.”

Ziv, G (2017)

So, we know that telling our dogs off for doing what we DON’T want is less effective than telling them what we want to do instead.  NOT ONLY THAT, using punishment (ie telling our dog off) decreases the trust they have for us and the relationship we have with them.  You may have seen dogs who are shouted at, have the lead jerked, use prong collars or slip leads who are SUPER well behaved. Unfortunately this is due to fear shutting down the dog’s responses.  Their wellbeing is severely compromised – is that really what we want?  A fearful dog who does not trust us?  The research is very clear on this.

So let’s think of some examples:

  1.  Let’s say your dog jumps up at the kitchen counters.  We could shout at the dog for doing this.  However the more effective and kind method would be:
    1. To manage the situation to prevent rehearsal of the behaviour we don’t want – so make sure that there is nothing your dog wants on the kitchen counter so that if they do jump up, they are not rewarded.  Plus prevent them from getting to the kitchen counter in the first place to prevent rehearsal.
    1. Think about what we want them to do instead.  When they are next to the kitchen counter, reward them downwards for having all 4 paws on the floor!
  2. What if your dog pulls on the lead.  We could jerk the lead every time they pull, inflicting pain and potential damage to the neck.  However the more effective and kind method would be:
    1. Reward with a treat when the lead is loose.
    1. Make being next to you more rewarding than pulling ahead.

So to summarise, by far the most effective way of training a dog is to reinforce what they SHOULD be doing using reward, rather than punishing what they SHOULD NOT.  In which case rather than worrying about whether they know if they have done something wrong, we want them to know, clearly, when they have done something right!

Find out more about how we help you train your dog here

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 Ziv, G. (2017). The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 19, pp.50–60.

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