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Punishment-Free Training: 5 Reasons Why!

Introduction to Punishment and Why It’s Inferior

Punishment in dog training is defined as an activity aimed at stopping undesirable behaviour. By its very nature, punishment is applied after the unwanted behaviour has already occurred. For example, if a dog jumps on a human and the human responds by slapping the dog, the slap is considered punishment. This approach is not only aversive but also often ineffective in promoting long-term behavioural change.

Contrast to Reinforcement

In contrast, reinforcement occurs when a desired behaviour is expressed. There are two types of reinforcement:

  • Positive Reinforcement: Offering a reward when the desired behaviour is displayed.
  • Negative Reinforcement: Removing an unpleasant stimulus when the desired behaviour occurs.

Both types of reinforcement are timed to coincide with the desired behaviour, making it clear to the dog what is expected. This clarity is essential for effective training.

Although the science is clear, the perspective of dog training services in Singapore varies significantly. This variation largely stems from the lack of comprehensive regulations governing training practices. Without standardised guidelines, dog trainers in Singapore adopt a wide range of methodologies, some of which may still include traditional methods that are outdated and not backed by science. It is crucial for dog owners to be discerning when selecting a trainer, ensuring that their approach aligns with humane and science-based principles.

Please check out our other article for more details regarding the dog training landscape in Singapore!

Why Punishment is an Inferior Training Tool

1. Limited Options

Punishment offers limited options for escalation and often hinders learning new behaviours. For instance, when training a dog to stop pulling on the leash, a punishment-focused approach involves escalating aversive impacts like scolding, leash pulling, or even hitting. This method can be inconsistent and confusing for dogs, making it difficult for them to understand the desired behaviour and often ending the training session with no progress.

In contrast, positive reinforcement training provides limitless creative options without harm. If a dog pulls when seeing another dog, start with a cue like “come back,” and if that doesn’t work, use a lure or higher value treat while adjusting the distance between dogs. This approach is more effective and kinder, allowing multiple attempts throughout the day without any negative impact on your furry friend. It ensures a positive learning experience, gradually reducing the reliance on lures and closing the gap between dogs over time.

2. Promotes a Non-Optimal Emotional State

Punishment creates an emotional state of heightened arousal in dogs, often leading to a fight-or-flight response. This state is not conducive to learning and can hinder the dog’s ability to understand and adopt the desired behaviour.

Negative association of stimulus can occur through a process known as classical conditioning. For example, if a dog consistently experiences an unpleasant stimulus, such as a loud noise, during training, it may start to associate training sessions with fear and anxiety. For more information on how classical conditioning works, please refer to our classical conditioning article.

In contrast, reinforcement actively encourages the desired behaviour, building a strong, trusting relationship between the dog and the trainer. Over time, dogs trained with reinforcement are more enthusiastic and reliable in their responses.

3. Unclear Desired Behaviour

Punishment is applied after the unwanted behaviour, which can confuse the dog about what is expected. The delay between the behaviour and the punishment can slow down the learning process and may even lead to the development of additional undesirable behaviours.

For example, if a dog pulls on the leash to meet other dogs and the handler responds by pulling harder, the dog may become frustrated and start barking. In contrast, luring the dog away with a treat and praising when it follows the treat makes the desired behaviour clear. For a training tool to be effective, it’s crucial that the desired behaviour is clearly communicated and understood by the dog. This clarity helps reinforce positive actions and ensures successful training outcomes.

For an example of clear instructions passed to the dog, please refer to our basic obedience step-by-step guide. This guide provides thorough, easy-to-follow instructions for effective and humane dog training.

4. Negative Emotional Association

Punishment can create negative emotional associations with both the activity and the person administering it. This can break the bond between handler and dog, making training more challenging and less enjoyable for both parties.

When negative associations are formed, not only can they be linked to the activity at hand, but they can also extend to the handler or owner themselves. This often occurs through classical conditioning, where the dog begins to relate certain actions or individuals with negative experiences. For instance, if a dog consistently receives harsh corrections from its handler during training, the dog may start to associate the handler’s presence with fear or discomfort. This can lead to a range of adverse behaviours, such as anxiety, avoidance, or aggression toward the handler.

Such negative associations are detrimental for several reasons. Firstly, they undermine the foundational trust that is essential for any effective training regimen. A dog that is fearful or anxious in the presence of its handler is less likely to be attentive and cooperative, which can significantly impair the learning process.

Secondly, these associations can erode the overall bond between the owner and the dog, making daily interactions and bonding moments stressful rather than enjoyable. In the long term, this strained relationship can diminish the quality of life for both the dog and the owner, as mutual trust and affection are critical for a fulfilling and harmonious companionship.

To prevent the formation of these negative associations, it is crucial for handlers to employ positive reinforcement strategies, which not only encourage desired behaviours but also contribute to a positive and trusting relationship between the dog and the owner.

5. Reinforces the Punisher

Punishment can make the person administering it feel good when it appears to work, which can lead to overuse. Often, it’s used not just for correction but as a means of revenge, aiming to “punish” rather than “train.” This sense of satisfaction also stems from establishing social dominance, as the act of punishing asserts control and superiority over the other individual. In many social dynamics, this need to dominate can drive the excessive use of punishment, as it reinforces the power hierarchy and the punisher’s top position within it. This reinforcement for the punisher can result in more frequent and intense punishment than necessary, which is not effective for long-term behavioural change.


Based on the above reasons, it’s clear that punishment is an inferior tool for dog training in all aspects. It’s not an effective training method, carries the potential for overuse due to human error, and has negative side effects on the relationship between the owner and the dog.

Furthermore, any desired behaviour can be reinforced consistently using positive reinforcement techniques, and any undesired behaviour can be effectively removed with the same approach, further discounting the need for punishment. There are clear examples from industry-leading experts in animal training that support the practical application of these methods, demonstrating their efficacy and humane nature.

While there may be times when it may seem necessary, it is not the most effective or humane approach. If your trainer uses punishment, it’s important to clarify their approach. Understanding the fundamentals of their technique helps ensure optimal results and allows you to learn as well. Remember, the goal of dog training is to help you become a better handler for your dog and improve your relationship. Be open to asking the trainer questions, as the training is also for you.

It’s important to recognise that all professional dog trainers will be well-versed in the concepts of punishment versus reinforcement, as these are fundamental principles of operant conditioning. However, some dog trainers might not be well-versed in the nuances of classical conditioning or the significant negative impacts that punishment can have on a dog’s emotional well-being, which are crucial aspects of behaviour modification and dog psychology.

For a professional, science-based dog training service that prioritises positive reinforcement, check out our dog training service page.

Best of luck on your dog training journey!

Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

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