An ongoing debate among dog trainers is the use of and need for punishment. Some trainers use primarily punishment to train dogs. Some use primarily positive reinforcement and try to avoid using any punishment. Most fit somewhere along the spectrum. Some say you can have a highly trained reliable dog without the use of punishment. Some say it can't be done.

If you've sought the help of a dog trainer to assist you in training your dog, you've probably run into some of this. One trainer tells you one thing. Another trainer tells you something contradictory. One book will give you another view. A television show will tell you something else. Who can you believe?

Anyone who knows me knows that I fit in the spectrum of primarily positive reinforcement training. I say “primarily” because no matter how hard you try, there are things you will do that truly are not “positive reinforcement” so saying that you use it 100% means you probably don't really understand learning theory.

I could spend quite a bit of time discussing my philosophy, but in this post what I really want to introduce you to is some of the work of Murray Sidman in his book titled Coercion and Its Fallout. This is not a dog training book and actually has nothing specifically to do with dogs at all. It's about human behavior and our use of coercion and punishment. It certainly applies to dog training from the perspective of how humans attempt to train their dogs, much like we try to “train” other humans in society, our families, our work, etc.

Let me share one small section of the book about “Does Punishment Work?”

“The most reasonable objective in using punishment is to stop undesirable behavior, to keep someone from doing things that are dangerous, frightening, or that we consider inappropriate, disadvantageous, immoral or abnormal. We have seen two ways of using punishment that seem to meet this objective. One is to administer very strong punishment, to ‘beat the devil out of him.' The other is to give mild punishment to make the person stop misbehaving at least temporarily, and then, without interference from the misbehavior, teach the correct way to act.

But these are not recommendations. Let no reader believe at this point that he or she has been advised or told how to use punishment effectively. The experiments we have looked at so far do not tell the whole story. In addition to suppressing unwanted conduct, punishment does many other things. When we take all of its effects into account, punishment's success in getting rid of behavior will seem inconsequential. The other changes that take place in people who are punished, and, what is sometimes even more important, the changes that take place in those who do the punishing, lead inevitably to the conclusion that punishment is a most unwise, undesirable, and fundamentally destructive method of controlling conduct.”

At nearly 300 pages, this book is not what I would consider light reading, but it is well worth taking the time to read. In fact, now that I look at it, I really want to read it again. Fascinating stuff to ponder both in relation to training our dogs and in how we relate to people in our society.