Should you punish your dog from time to time?

Sometimes when you’re training, punishment (positive punishment—where the dog’s behaviour makes a bad thing happen) may be appropriate—but those times should be very few and far between. Since I started using positive reinforcement training, I have only had to use positive punishment with a dog on a rare occasion, and I considered those incidents a failure on my part because I was unable to devise a positive solution to a serious problem.

In a crisis, I might explode with a deafening “No!” to interrupt behaviour that is risking someone’s life or safety. But even though a loud “No!” is a verbal reprimand, it can very much be considered positive punishment, and therefore risks the same negative side effects that physical punishment does.

I much prefer to use negative punishment, in which the dog’s behaviour makes a good thing to go away, to change an unwelcome behavior. The most notable example of my reluctant application of positive punishment involved a client’s Pit Bull mix who was very dedicated to chasing horses.

Happy’s owners (an elderly couple) found him abandoned by the side of the road at the tender age of 5 weeks. They had briefly attended a traditional training class, but dog and owners were so offended by the forceful choke-chain methods used in the class that they dropped out. Three years later, Happy was totally out of control.

A series of private positive reinforcement lessons with dog and owners, however, quickly taught Happy his basic good manners. Before long, he was greeting visitors without bowling them over, sitting without even being asked, lying down on cue, waiting politely for his Frisbee to be tossed instead of grabbing it out of the thrower’s hand, and coming when he was called (most of the time).

Happy loved to chase horses, though. About once a month, his desire to chase outweighed his response to the cue to come. He would duck under the electric fence and have a gay time terrorizing the occupants of the pasture. Not only was this stressful to the horses, but it was also dangerous to Happy, as flying horse heels whizzed past his head.

One day, I was at Happy’s house, working with his owners on his training. It had been several weeks since Happy had chased a horse, and we were hopeful that we were making progress. But suddenly he took off after the herd and, sure enough, this time he got kicked squarely in the head. He fell to the ground, motionless, and I was sure he was dead. The three of us began running toward the pasture. Before we reached Happy he lifted his head, shook it, stood up, and began staggering toward us.

“Okay,” I thought to myself. “He’s not dead, but he has permanent brain damage.” Happy kept walking, and by the time he reached us, his stride was steadier. In ten minutes he was still a bit subdued but otherwise seemed fine. A trip to the vet confirmed that he had suffered a concussion but, by some incredible good fortune, nothing more serious. What a relief! Certainly, getting knocked unconscious by a horse was perfectly timed and appropriate enough punishment to forestall any future horse chasing ventures. Or so we thought.

Several weeks went by without incident, and we were all sure that Happy had kicked the horse-chasing habit—until, on another of my visits, Happy went horse-hunting again. We all agreed that we had to find a way to stop him. This was truly a lifesaving intervention, not just the threat of an impatient owner who might dump his dog at the animal shelter if we didn’t find a quick fix. Happy was going to get himself killed if he kept chasing horses. It just so happened that Happy was gun-shy.

A firing range was located a distance from Happy’s house, and whenever someone was target-practicing, even though the gunshots were quite muffled, he would head lickety-split for the front porch. We decided to try using this to our advantage. I purchased a cap gun at a toy store, loaded it with caps, and waited for the moment.

True to form, several weeks later, Happy gave us the chance. As we were returning from a training session in a nearby field, he spotted the horses. His head went up, his eyes sparkled, he perked up his ears, and he took off like a bullet. I pulled out the cap gun and waited. Just as he ducked under the wire into the pasture, I fired. Happy wheeled in his tracks and dashed for the porch, where he sat glued to the floor until we joined him.

It was the first time that we had succeeded in stopping him in mid-charge. We were hopeful. Properly applied positive punishment should work within one or two applications. Anything more than that isn’t doing the job and constitutes abuse. We didn’t want to continuously use the cap gun to stop his charges after the horses. We wanted it to stop the behaviour completely, quickly. I left the gun with his owners, and we all crossed our fingers. They only had to use it one more time. Twice was enough to convince Happy to leave the horses alone forever. Mission accomplished.

Am I pleased that we found a way to keep Happy safe?

Of course, I am. Do I wish I had found a way to do it without capitalizing on his noise phobia? Absolutely. To this day, I ask myself if there wasn’t another, more positive way to accomplish our goal. I constantly bring Happy’s case history up at trainer forums and on e-mail lists. I wonder if we could have succeeded with Leslie Nelson’s “Really Reliable Recall.” (See appendix IV, “Resources.”) I am convinced that there was a positive way to do it—I just couldn’t find it at the time.

There may be very rare occasions when some reasonable form of positive punishment is appropriate. But it should only be used after great deliberation, and only after all possible dog-friendly methods have been tried and ruled out.

In the last two decades, a wealth of resources have become available to owners and dog-training professionals who are looking for positive solutions to training challenges, including Internet listserves, books, videos, DVDs, and training organizations and support groups.

Reasonable, by the way, rules out the use of electric shock collars, hanging, helicoptering, and any other cruel technique that risks mental or physical damage to the dog. Appropriate occasions are few and far between, and they are, I believe, an admission of failure on the part of a positive trainer.

Having said that, let’s get on with the rest of the book in which I offer positive reinforcement training methods and solutions (sprinkled lightly with gentle applications of benign negative punishment), and I studiously avoid any more discussion of the use of force.

The Trick Is in the Training: Basic Exercises

In this chapter, I describe the mechanics of an effective training program. The subsequent chapters get down to the nuts and bolts of educating your dog. You are about to embark on an exciting adventure in mutual empowerment.

It actually could be considered a foreign exchange program, because at the same time that you are learning about your dog’s mind, behaviour, and culture, she will be learning about yours. Remember: You are teaching her English as a second language, and you are about to become more fluent in hers. Theoretically, each of the following six chapters represents one week’s worth of training.

However, because each dog (and trainer) is an individual, feel free to go more slowly if you’d like—or more quickly if your dog is an Einstein. When you and your dog have learned all of the exercises in the book, you will have completed the introduction to your dog’s training career. The two of you will have an understanding of the behaviours and communication tools that will serve you both as you proceed on your journey through the rest of your lives together.

Your dog probably won’t be able to perform all the behaviours perfectly by the end of the book; some of them will take several more weeks, or even months, to approach the level of reliability that you’d eventually like to see. For some dogs, a truly reliable recall—by my definition, 90 percent reliability or better in the face of serious distractions—can take years. But you have years.

Training happens every day throughout your dog’s entire life. Every time you interact with your dog is a training opportunity. Every time you and your dog are together, one of you is training the other.

Wouldn’t you rather be the trainer than the trainee?

The Core Exercises sections in the following chapters will lay a solid foundation for your dog’s future. The Bonus Games sections are included to help remind you and your dog that training is supposed to be fun. After the instructions to the exercises, I also include training tips, where helpful, in the form of answers to common questions that arise when people begin to teach their dogs the core exercises.

These should help encourage you and your dog to work through the rough patches you may encounter. You will want to do a thorough job of teaching your dog all the core exercises; they are the key to helping your dog develop her basic good manners. You will also need that solid foundation if you want to go on to more advanced training in any canine sport.

You can pick and choose from the bonus games based on your training goals, your dog’s natural talents, and your own personal fancy. Including at least some of the bonus games in your training program is important. Because they are fun and sometimes frivolous, they will keep your training program enjoyable and help to strengthen the relationship between you and your canine partner.

People tend to be too serious when they teach their dogs the behaviors that they think are important, but they permit themselves to have fun when they are teaching behaviors that they call tricks. Rarely do you see someone punishing Queenie for not responding to a cue for a high-five. And rarely does Queenie not respond! It’s a fun trick, and dog and owner both seem to enjoy showing off.

Positive trainers like to say, “It’s all tricks!” Teaching Queenie to lie down on cue is no less a trick than teaching her to offer a paw. As soon as you get too serious about the Down cue, however, you’re no longer having fun and neither is she. When you’re not having fun, it’s time to stop training—at least for that session. Pick up your tricks and treats again when you’re in a more positive frame of mind.


In the beginning, you will want to train in an environment that has few distractions. Wait until the toddler is down for a nap, then put the other dog in the garage, shut the cat in the back bedroom, and pick up the chew toys. You want to be the most interesting game in town so that your dog wants to pay attention to you. Indoors is infinitely better than outdoors, because you can’t control the outdoor environment. Squirrels, rabbits, skateboards, and other dogs are just a few of a dog’s favourite things that may outrank you in competition for her attention early in her training program.

If you consistently use the same room in the house to train, your dog will automatically start to focus on you when you set up to train. Use this room whenever you are going to teach something new. When Queenie seems to understand new behaviour, then you will want to take it on the road by practicing in different environments.

It is critically important to do this if you want your dog to be well-behaved in public. Thousands of dogs are perfectly well-behaved in the luxury of their own homes when no visitors are around.

But let Aunt Martha or the hot new boyfriend come over, or take Queenie for a walk to the park, and she turns into a maniac. This happens because your dog won’t integrate distractions or generalize her training (be able to apply it to environments other than the one you trained in) well unless you help her. If you always work in the kitchen and practice having Queenie sit two feet in front of the refrigerator, she will think that the cue Sit means “sit two feet in front of the refrigerator.” The first time you take her into the living room and ask her to sit in front of the television set, she doesn’t do it.

She’s thinking, “Are you nuts? How can I sit?

There’s no refrigerator here!” Meanwhile, you are thinking that Queenie’s being stubborn, obstinate, spiteful, or stupid because she knows darn well how to sit and she’s ignoring your cue.

Every time you move to a new environment or add distractions, you may need to back up a couple of steps in your dog’s training to let her know that Sit means the same thing wherever she is, whether there’s a refrigerator there or not. A group training class provides a perfect opportunity to train your dog in a distracting environment and to teach her this important lesson.

You will need to find dozens of more opportunities like this for her to understand that Sit happens everywhere. Once she becomes more sophisticated about training and accustomed to working in different environments, Queenie will be able to learn new things despite reasonable distractions, and she will be able to generalize more quickly with each new behaviour that you teach her.


Training a new behavior follows a simple (although not always easy) six-step recipe. Just as good cooks add their own variations to a recipe, good trainers vary the training recipe when they decide that a particular training challenge needs a little more (or less) spice. When you have used the recipe enough to know it well, you can add your own spices as needed.
Six Steps for Teaching a New Behavior

1. Get the behaviour.

2. Mark the behavior.

3. Reward the behaviour.

4. Repeat the behavior until it happens easily at least 80 percent of the time. 5. Add the verbal cue just before the dog does the behavior to associate the word with the appropriate response.

6. Use the verbal cue to elicit the behavior.

You get the behaviour by capturing, shaping, or luring it. You mark the behavior with the click! or some other reward marker that Queenie has already learned means that the reward is coming. Reward the behavior by following the click! or another reward marker with a yummy treat, favourite toy, or another desirable reward such as going outside. Repeat the behavior until Queenie is offering it easily before you add the verbal cue so that she will associate the word with the correct behaviour response.

For example, by saying “Sit!” just before she does it, you are telling her that the name of the behaviour she is doing is Sit. If you ask her to do it before she’s offering the behaviour easily, you risk teaching her that the word sit means “stand there and look at me,” or, worse, “sniff the ground and pull on the leash.” After Queenie has heard the word at least a half-dozen to two dozen times when you know she’s about to perform the behaviour—depending on how quickly she seems to learn—then you can say the word first to elicit the behaviour. Be sure that her attention is focused on you so that she actually hears the word, and keep your body position the same as it was when you were getting the behaviour before. If you had been doing the Sit while you were standing and you suddenly start asking for it while you are sitting, your dog won’t understand that it’s the same thing.

It’s the refrigerator phenomenon, remember?

Give her a few seconds to respond after you give the verbal cue, “Sit!” When she sits, click! and reward. If she doesn’t sit, use the minimum amount of assistance necessary through body language (prompt) or a lure—not through physical assistance—to get the behaviour. Then repeat the exercise. If you find that she will only respond if you help her, start to minimize (fade) the amount of help you give until she is sitting for the verbal cue without any assistance from you.

How Much Should You Train?

I remember when I used to go to old-fashioned training classes. The trainer would exhort us to put the choke chain and leash on our dogs and drill for forty-five to sixty minutes every day. In these busy times, few dog owners can find a solid hour of free training time every day.

Fortunately, I won’t ask you to. One of the many things I love about positive training is that it can happen any time, all the time. You don’t need to get your dog “dressed” in special training equipment—she’s ready whenever you are. I suggest that you train in several five- to fifteen-minute sessions, for a total of thirty to forty-five minutes per day.

This is easier than it sounds. Every time you interact with your dog, you have a golden training opportunity. By incorporating your practice sessions into your dog’s daily routine, she learns that responding to your behaviour cues earns her all the good things in life—it’s not just something she does when you have a leash or a treat in your hand. Keep in mind that anytime you are with your dog, one of you is training the other.

Dog-human relationships are usually better if the human is the trainer more often than the dog. This means ideally that you are always aware of which of your dog’s behaviors you are reinforcing—or not—to have the greatest impact on her future behaviour, not just during formal training sessions. Breakfast time? Hold Queenie’s bowl up and have her do five puppy pushups (see chapter 10, Core Exercise “1.5—Puppy Push-Ups”). Bingo—you just did a training session! Practice her Wait exercises a few times whenever she goes outside or comes back in. Do some “Stay” practice during TV commercials.

Reinforce a polite greeting when you come home from work or from shopping. Before you know it, you will have easily exceeded your three to six sessions per day—and that’s fine, too! In any single training session, pick one or two exercises to focus on. Start with something that Queenie’s good at, such as puppy push-ups, for example, to get her tuned in to you. There’s nothing like success and rewards to get a dog excited about playing the training game! Then introduce something new or more challenging.

At first, do enough repetitions so that your dog has an opportunity to figure out what you are asking her to do. If your dog doesn’t seem to be getting it, you may need to do more shaping by breaking the behaviour down into smaller pieces and rewarding her more often for small bits of the desired goal behaviour. For example, if Queenie won’t lie down, you may need to click! and reward her at first just for looking toward the floor as you move your lure toward the ground.

Keep marking and rewarding as she goes lower and lower, until she is all the way down (see chapter 10, Core Exercise “1.4—The Down”). If she quits playing the game with you, go back to the point where she was doing well and proceed more slowly, giving more clicks and rewards for smaller pieces of the goal behaviour.

If you sense that either or both of you are getting frustrated, it’s time for a break. End the training session on a positive note by asking for a behaviour that she loves to do—and only have her do it once or twice. Then take a recess. When she has the hang of it, you can make the future practice sessions for that particular behaviour shorter to prevent Queenie from getting bored.

How long you train a particular behavior will depend on your dog’s personality and level of training. Some dogs will quit after three or four repetitions, as if to say, “Okay, I did that already—can’t we do something else now?” Know your dog. If she gets bored after five reps, stop at three, while she is still fresh and enthusiastic. If you keep it interesting for her, you will be able to gradually build

build up her stamina and attention span. On the other hand, some dogs will happily repeat behaviour dozens of times because they love making the click! happen and earning the reward that goes with it. If you encourage this attitude, just performing the behaviour itself can become the reward because it has been so consistently associated with fun and play and other good stuff.

When Queenie starts to become fluent in a particular behaviour—that is, when she seems to understand and perform the behaviour on cue reliably in a wide variety of environments—then you no longer have to practice that behaviour as often. In fact, some dogs will perform a behaviour with more enthusiasm if you skip a couple of days between practice sessions.


In chapter 6, I introduced the basic equipment and tools that positive trainers use. Before you get out in the field with your dog, however, I want to emphasize some of the finer points of using your equipment and tools to their best advantage.
Winning the Jackpot Many trainers use the word jackpot as a cue to the dog that she has done something extra-special. This is usually a training breakthrough of some kind.

For example, when Queenie finally lies all the way down after a challenging shaping session—or she starts to jump up as is her usual custom and, for the first time, you see her stop herself and make a conscious decision to sit instead— click! and give the verbal cue “Jackpot!” Say it in an excited tone of voice, followed by a handful of treat pieces delivered in rapid succession instead of just one tiny piece. One jackpot theory is that the extra-large number of rewards makes an extra-big impression on the dog and greatly increases the likelihood of a repeat performance.

Another theory is that it requires the trainer to take a breather and rewards the dog for successful behaviour by giving her a break. When your dog finally does something that has been difficult for her, it is human nature for us to say, “Wow, that was really cool—let’s do it again!” If you ask her to do it again right away, she may feel punished, thinking, “Oh no, I have to do this hard thing again?” Giving her a jackpot and a break, however, gives her a big reward and also gives her time to process the behaviour in her mind.

This can have a definite training benefit. I was convinced that a break helps our dogs process newly learned behaviour early in my Peaceable Paws training career while working with a private client.

The woman had just adopted Jessie, a lovely Australian Shepherd mix, from the shelter. I was doing the initial consultation.

As is my customary practice, I played with Jessie while the owner filled out the questionnaire. During this time, I usually teach the dog that click! means “treat” and get her to offer sits for clicks. It takes about ten minutes to fill out the form and by the end of this time, most dogs are usually eagerly throwing sits for me as fast as they can.

Well, dear little Jessie just wouldn’t sit. She wouldn’t offer a sit, and she wouldn’t lure into a sit no matter what I tried. During this frustrating session, I held fast to my positive philosophies and refused to jerk or push her into a sit. Finally, just as the owner was finishing the form, Jessie sat, one time.

I gave her a fast click!and a huge jackpot and left her to ponder the experience while I sat down with her owner to go over the questionnaire. Normally, after I review the questionnaire, I return to the dog to show the owner how the dog already understands the clicker and the Sit. When I approached Jessie, I was prepared for another ten minutes of work to get a Sit. Not so.

She got it. She sat immediately when I approached and happily offered sits as long as I kept cueing her to do so. Once again, I was reminded of the awesome power of positive training.
The Magic of the Clicker—It’s All in the Timing The secret of the clicker (or any other reward marker) is in the timing. The click! must happen the instant the dog does (or is doing) the behaviour you want to reinforce. The offering of the treat is a separate step.

Queenie sits. You immediately click! and pause—then move the treat forward and offer it to her. Novice clicker trainers tend to want to click! and treat at the same time, or even start to offer the treatment before they click.

When this happens, the dog is more interested in the approaching treat and doesn’t hear or think about the click! Have someone watch you while you train or, better yet, have that person videotape you so that you can watch yourself in action. If there is a distinct pause between the sound of the clicker and the offering of the treat, you’ve got it. If Queenie is already getting up before you click!, or the click! and the treat is happening together (or if you are clicking before fur meets the floor), then you need to work on your timing.

The No-Reward Marker Also called a conditioned punisher, the no-reward marker (NRM) tells Queenie that she has not earned a reward for the behaviour offered. Some positive trainers use the NRM, others do not. It is perfectly possible to train without one,

but many owners and trainers are more comfortable having some audible tool for marking a dog’s behaviour mistake. The danger in using an NRM is that an owner steeped in the force-based tradition of training can easily overuse it and have it end up being a punisher, meaning “Bad dog!” rather than just giving an upbeat “Oops!,” which means “You made a mistake, but let’s try again.” I do use NRMs, although very sparingly. I may use one when teaching the Stay cue to let a dog who is starting to move to know that she is about to make a mistake.

Then I quickly click! and reward when she settles back into place and stays for a second or two. The NRM should be a lighthearted cue, and it should not be uttered in an angry voice. I prefer the verbal “Oops!” because it is hard to say in an angry or intimidating tone. Other trainers use “Too Bad!” or a medium-pitched throat sound “Ank!” If you do choose to use an NRM, commit to keeping it positive and not intimidating.
Loose Leash—Try Saying ThatTen Times in a Row!

Your dog’s leash is an important management and training tool. It is a safety belt that keeps Queenie from either going too far away or getting into trouble.

It is not a handle or a steering wheel. If you are training in a safe environment and Queenie is focused and staying with you, you don’t even need the leash.

If she is finding the environment more interesting than her trainer, however, the leash will restrict her access to environmental rewards. You can stand on the leash or tie it to your belt.

This will keep you from being tempted to use it as a steering wheel by pulling Queenie into position (forcing the behaviour to happen) when you should be figuring out how to get her to offer the behavior voluntarily. If you do choose to hold the leash in your hand, it should almost always be loose (with a six-inch valley hanging down) unless you need to restrain her to prevent her access to an environmental reward such as jumping on someone, or a hazard such as running out into traffic.

As soon as the restraint is no longer needed, the leash valley should reappear. What kind of leash you choose to use isn’t critical. Keep in mind that the bright designer-coloured nylon leashes are hard on your hands if your dog is a puller. Avoid retractable leads for training; they are too bulky to hold along with clickers and treats, and they don’t do a good job of restricting your dog’s access to environmental rewards.

Most dog owners find that they are more committed to training if they have some structure in their training program. If you are this kind of trainer, you will find sample practice programs in appendix I, “Doggy Day-Planners.” Feel free to copy and/or modify these practice programs to meet the needs of your own dog, increasing or decreasing the number of repetitions as her responses and learning speed dictate.

Be sure to use a practice program as a guide, not as a word of law. As a trainer, flexibility is an important skill for you to keep in your training kit.

Always remember that training is supposed to be fun. Find a way to end every training session on a positive note, with behaviour that your dog loves. Now, let’s go do it!

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