Why Discipline Works in Dog Training, and Punishment Doesn't

There's a common misconception that discipline is connected solely to punishment, but this isn't the best way to train your dog.

Published April 5, 2023
Girl and her puppy, puppy reaching his paw out to her to shake hands

There has been a long-standing debate in the dog training world regarding how use discipline and punishment. Through years of research and observation, canine behaviorists have come to the conclusion that punishment is not the way to go. Although punishment may appear to work, it severely damages the bond you share with your dog, and it doesn't help dogs understand what they did wrong, or what you're asking them to do. Dogs need to trust their pet parent and feel safe in their presence to become well-rounded adults.

Consistency and Discipline

Just because punishment doesn't work, doesn't mean you can't discipline your dog. Establish rules, and stick to them. This is the most important step you can take in disciplining your dog.

Dogs thrive on routine, so creating a schedule that includes feeding, walking, and sleeping times will help keep both of you on track. Building a routine helps your dog know what's coming, and makes it easier for them to remain calm so they can best absorb the training you are providing.

It's also important for owners to establish limits for their pets. What is allowed and what isn't in the household? You may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your dog allowed on the couch?
  • Is your dog allowed on the bed, or do they have their own bed?
  • Is your dog permitted to pull on the leash?
  • Is your dog allowed to beg for scraps at the table?

Whatever your answers are to the questions above, stick with them. Patience is essential, as is remaining calm. Remain consistent in your training.

For example, if you don't want your dog to jump onto you when you get home from work, but you allow it sometimes and not others, you're not being consistent. Your dog will not understand you want them to refrain from jumping up. However, if you remain consistent in your training with positive reinforcement, your dog will learn that they don't get attention unless they are calm.

Fast Fact

Studies have shown that dogs who are trained with punishment techniques are not more obedient and do not perform better on tasks. However, dogs who receive punishment are more likely to display problematic behaviors.

Beagle sitting by owner, begging for food

Punishment Versus Discipline

Punishment isn't just using physical aggression with your dog. It can also involve inflicting any pain, loss, or negative consequence to try to prevent a behavior. Punishment causes pain in the dog and is not an effective way to train. Instead of scaring your dog into submission with harsh words or physical abuse, try rewarding good behavior instead.

Discipline is completely different. When you use discipline, you are simply creating expectations and insisting that your dog follow them. This means giving your dog a time-out, using a firm voice, or ignoring the negative behavior when it occurs. This type of discipline is not likely to scare your dog and can be effective.

If you have been using punishment methods on your dog up until now, you will need to earn back their trust and form a safe bond before you can depend on your dog's training flowing well. This is where discipline comes in. You must be disciplined enough to maintain consistency with your dog, and make an effort to earn back trust so they can form a strong bond with you.

Dogs and Their Reaction to Punishment

Dogs react to punishment in different ways, depending on their personality and history with similar situations. Some dogs will become more fearful and anxious when they're punished. Others may become aggressive towards their owners as a result of feeling threatened or attacked. Either way, punishing with force results in negative outcomes.

Fast Fact

Dogs do not understand how to relate delayed punishment - where the negative consequence is applied after some time has passed - to the unwanted behavior they performed. If you try to punish a dog even a few minutes after they do something you don't want them to do, you are only confusing them.

Employing Positive Reinforcement

The solution is to use positive reinforcement when training your dog. This type of training uses rewards to reinforce good behavior. This is basic conditioning in behavioral psychology. The reward you use can be as simple as a pat on the head or as elaborate as a treat. The key is to make it enjoyable for your dog, so they want to repeat the desired behavior.

Woman petting her Dalmation on foresty trail

Positive reinforcement works by teaching your dog that good things happen when they do what you want them to do. For example, if you want your dog to sit, you say "Sit" while putting your hand in front of their nose to encourage them to sit. Then, offer kibble or a treat, pet them, and praise them. "Good dog," in a happy voice, is sufficient. This way, your dog learns to correlate performing the desired behavior with getting something positive.

Your dog will be more inclined to respond to commands if they:

  1. Know they are doing something that pleases you.
  2. Associate the behavior with positivity.
  3. See you give a consistent signal telling them to perform the behavior.
Quick Tip

Treats should never comprise more than 10% of your dog's daily caloric intake. If you run out of treats, offer a small portion of their daily meal as a reward, or just make sure treats are smaller.

Properly Training a Puppy

Puppies can be trained in the same manner as adult dogs. In fact, starting out with positive reinforcement and sticking with it is a very effective way to ensure your puppy turns into a responsive, well-trained adult. Puppies are a clean slate and have a lot to learn. Start them off right by building their bond through positive reinforcement training.

For example, potty training your puppy is an excellent opportunity to practice positive reinforcement and discipline. Potty training isn't just about teaching your puppy to go outside. It's also about teaching your puppy that peeing and pooping on the floor is wrong. Use positive reinforcement consistently to train your puppy to go outside as soon as they wake up, after meals and playtime, after naps, and when returning home from a walk or car ride.

When your puppy goes potty outside, give them lots of praise and affection, and potentially a treat reward if you have some on hand. If they obey other commands, such as Sit or Down, reward them with praise then, too. The idea is to reward good behavior so that your puppy wants to continue to do good. Consistency, patience, and positive reinforcement are the perfect discipline for this training.

Fast Fact

Never rub your puppy's nose in their mess if they have an accident. They don't make the association between the punishment and what you want them to do, and you will only scare them.

Remember, Patience is Key

Although your dog may have some frustrating behaviors, especially if they're new to the household, it's important not to hit, scold, or punish them. Remain patient, be consistent, and show your dog affection and attention when they're being good.

Why Discipline Works in Dog Training, and Punishment Doesn't