The Truth about Punishment - How it doesn't work like you think it does!

When Your Puppy Is Being “Naughty” Or Doing An Undesirable Behaviour

Implementing punishment (both physical and verbal) means that we need to allow the undesirable behaviour to happen in the first place for us to correct it when you should be teaching your puppy from the very beginning what the boundaries and limitations are, what the desired behaviour is, what is expected and what they can do to be rewarded and to get what they want. It is up to you to set them up to succeed in life and if you have to get angry at them, that is on you and not them as you haven’t correctly shown what they need to do. At the moment your puppy is forming a lifelong opinion about the world now. Everything that is happening whether good or bad is embedded into your puppy’s brain. You want your puppy to know that you are kind, trustworthy, predictable, safe and their advocate, not scary, forceful, unpredictable, intimidating. 

Ideally, you should try to avoid letting your puppy practice any unwanted behaviour. Your goal as your puppy's guardian is to focus on the antecedent arrangements - predict the potential situation and make changes to avoid problems and to set your puppy up to succeed. Any behaviour you allow your puppy to practice will simply get stronger. For example, a client approached me wondering why their dog was stealing and chewing their shoes. I discovered that the current shoe eating behaviour is the consequence of giving their dog old shoes they no longer used to chew on in the backyard as a puppy. As the puppy transitioned into a dog how was it meant to understand the difference between a “chewing shoe” and a “I am currently wearing it shoe”? You must look at the antecedent rather than after the fact. Management and prevention is key to avoiding problematic behaviours, so if you don’t want your puppy to eat your shoes put them away out of reach and provide correct chewing toys. If you know your puppy runs away and doesn’t come back when called, don’t let it off the lead until you have established a rock hard recall behaviour. If you know your dog gets super excited and jumps all over visitors, put your puppy on lead or in another room with something to do until it has calmed down and only acknowledge all fours on the floor behaviour.

If your puppy has developed behaviours that you don’t necessarily appreciate and you are trying to change an ingrained behaviour (more so as they get older), there is no magic trick that is guaranteed to make your puppy change straight away. If they have built up mileage practising the old behaviour, you will need to build up even more mileage practising the new behaviour to outdo the old behaviour. Give your puppy many opportunities to rehearse what you do like and pay them (with treats) generously for doing so. 

For punishment to be effective and for the puppy to decrease or eliminate the undesirable behaviour altogether we need to inflict it at the highest possible tolerance from the very beginning whilst the behaviour is happening for the puppy to understand that what they did was wrong. The question is, how do you know what your puppy’s tolerance level is, you aren’t them. Too little, then we risk acknowledging the behaviour and inadvertently rewarding them and too much, we risk creating an anxious, nervous, neurotic dog instead. If your puppy looks guilty or that it looks like they know what you are angry at them about, they don’t! All they are responding to is your tone and your body language. Dog’s are experts at reading human behaviour and they can expertly read when you are upset, angry, annoyed, frustrated but that doesn’t mean they know why. 

When you are faced with an undesirable behaviour it is important to ask yourself “Does it matter?”. If it doesn’t matter let it go. If it does matter go back to antecedent arrangements. 

If you are dealing with undesirable behaviours the best approach is IGNORE, REDIRECT and REWARD. I am not saying that you can’t say “No” or get upset but I am going to ask you what “No” actually means? Humans say no to dogs all of the time. No don’t steal the food, no stop stealing my socks, no don’t jump on the people. You are saying no which essentially means I don’t like that behaviour and stop now but what do you want them to do instead? Don’t wait for the problem behaviour to happen, to then try and counter it, instead focus and put your energy into teaching your puppy the correct behaviour instead and you won’t have a reason to say no. Don’t beat yourself up if you do catch yourself out saying it as we are all human and we all will sooner or later just make a mental note and be mindful in future.


Ignore - It is not walking away and pretending it never happened, what I mean is avoid “no’s”,  “ah ah’s”, stern eye contact or physical touch because if you do any of these you have just acknowledged the behaviour in your puppy’s eyes and have given your puppy a reaction as most of the time a “no” is not enough in regards to your puppy’s tolerance level to realize what they have done is wrong. 

Redirect - Change your puppy’s attention or focus to a positive, desirable behaviour E.g. Biting shirt - redirect onto an appropriate chew rope or give them an enrichment to get out the need to get their teeth into something and to calm down. Make them sit first so the enrichment is the reward for the sit. You are breaking up the actions so they won’t associate the enrichment with the biting. It is very important that you don’t always reward off a negative behaviour as your puppy will learn to create a behaviour loop. E.g. Your puppy jumps to then sit to get the reward.

Reward - Acknowledge and praise your puppy for doing the correct behaviour. Show your puppy this is what you like and what gets them something. E.g. Play tug with your puppy if they have changed from biting your shirt to biting the chew rope. Do not just give them the toy and walk away. The value of the reward is not the chew rope, it is the interaction with you. 

Be mindful that us humans are very good at focusing on the bad things in life and ignoring the good. E.g. We go to a restaurant and have a lovely meal. We thank the waiter on the way out and that is the end of it as that is what is EXPECTED, what you are paying for. However, if you go to a restaurant and there is a bug in your dish or it is missing half the ingredients and they won’t acknowledge it, we are the first to take photos, post it on Facebook, give a bad Google review and tell everyone we meet not to go there. It is important to understand that most of the time the behaviour your puppy is showing is normal, it is us humans who don’t like it. Take biting/mouthing, for example, it is a very normal behaviour for a puppy to do and unless we teach them the appropriate way to express that need to bite/chew (I.e. not on human skin or objects) they don’t just grow out of it like everyone thinks. Puppies learn through their mouth similar to how everything goes into a toddler’s mouth. Puppies don’t have hands or opposable thumbs meaning that the only way they can grab or move things is by their mouth. If you also observe puppies playing with other puppies or dogs you will see that they use their mouths to play. On top of it being a very normal and healthy puppy behaviour they are usually also teething and like us it can be quite painful, so they look for anything to relieve the pressure onto which usually ends up being a piece of furniture or a shoe. Biting almost always gives your puppy a reaction or acknowledgement because it really hurts when they get us and involuntarily we usually finch, get angry at them, push them away, yelp, etc. A perfect response that their teeth touching your skin makes something happen.

Another good example to understand this is to look at a cattle dog. They were bred to herd - so to chase and nip at livestock (moving objects) to move them from one place to another. It is literally in their DNA. On a farm, if a cattle dog was to show these behaviours we would reward and encourage them so the dog keeps showcasing them. However, in suburbia they are frowned upon and some people would even say that the dog is being “naughty”, disobedient or even aggressive as it is trying to chase after the car that just passed or nip at the little girls heels as she is running with the kite. Again we need to look at the context in which the behaviours are being displayed. The cattle dog isn’t being naughty it is just doing what it thinks it is meant to do but on the flip side we can’t have the dog chasing cars or nipping ankles as it is unsafe. The worst thing we could do would be to get angry at the dog. It would be like me yelling or smacking you for going to the toilet (expressing a natural bodily function). Instead we need to embrace the dog's needs so in this case the need to run and chase and allow that dog a positive way to express these feelings and reward them for doing it that way. E.g. Teach the dog Treibball or use a flirt pole.

Really dogs are the only species that we set unrealistic expectations for. We don’t punish other humans for expressing an opinion, the need to learn, for crying or laughing, or for believing in something in particular, all of which are very normal species-specific behaviours. But we expect our dogs to not growl, bark, chase, chew or jump - again all very normal species-specific behaviours. These are just behaviours that don’t fit into our very human world so give your dog an outlet, let them be who they need to be in a positive way to avoid pent up frustration and as a reaction undesirable or what we call “naughty” behaviours.