That’s Not Punishment, is it?

What exactly is punishment?

This is not the place to get all technical with semantics and the definitions of punishment. It’s enough to say here that it’s anythinPunishment can be as subtle as disapprovalg the dog doesn’t like, done by us, in order to stop him doing something we don’t want him to do – correction.

Punishment doesn’t have to be wielded with obvious things like a stick, shock collar, water spray or shouting. To a sensitive dog, a warning tone of voice or even a certain look could be punishment. Some might say that psychological punishment is worse than physical punishment, anyway.

Basically, anything imposed on the dog that he doesn’t like, is, to that particular dog, punishment. Being thrown into the river would be traumatic for one of my dogs but heaven to my Cocker Spaniel!

In the case of delightful Collie Staffie cross Banjo, there are things that his humans would never have regarded as ‘punishment’ at all which have been punishing to Banjo. They love him dearly and would never hurt him.

Why is it that today, despite all the evidence, many people still reject the regular use of food for reinforcement when getting their dogs to do what they want and still rely on correction?

One problem with anything aversive is that it can contaminate other things present at the time – or things the dog may associate with the scary event.

Here an illustration of this – not related to Banjo. A wellington boot is dropped by mistake or thrown in anger, scaring the dog; he could then become frightened of all wellington boots, or of anything dropped or thrown, or of the room it happened in, or the washing machine which happened to be on at the time or even of anybody wearing wellington boots.


People can be surprised when they realise something they do is, in fact, punishment

Surely punishing a dog would be something physical – or at the very least, shouting?

‘Punishment’ can be a lot more subtle and the fallout from subtle things that are aversive can be a loss of confidence in general.

Using positive, reward-based and force-free methods doesn’t mean we have a dog without boundaries that can run wild. It just means that the dog learns to enjoy the behaviour that we want because it works best for him, rather than just hitting upon the desired behaviour because it’s the one that doesn’t lead to unpleasant consequences.

Three-year-old Banjo comes over as a rather worried dog. He is easily effected by the emotions of his humans and it’s quite a volatile household with the lady and her two adult sons. Each one is different with Banjo. One son is the disciplinarian and has done a great job with teaching him training tricks, the other son is more sensitive and probably less consistent, and the lady is a pushover! They find it hard to agree on how to treat the dog and this predictably leads to disputes.

One can imagine how this can be confusing to a dog, particular one that doesn’t like raised voices.


Banjo is generally obedient but rewards are seldom used. He is taught to avoid the consequences of being disobedient and even though few dog owners would class these consequences as ‘punishment’, to Banjo they can be.

Of late the young man has introduced ‘time-out’ when Banjo does something unwanted or doesn’t do something he is told to do. Are we sure that Banjo actually knows what it is that he shouldn’t be doing? The man counts down “3-2-1” and then Banjo is shut in the porch.

Apart from learning that the countdown ends up with his being sent to the porch, I doubt whether Banjo always knows why – or is actually learning what he should be doing. Because the counting will sound threatening, he will no doubt stop anything he happens to be doing whatever it is; the counting alone will have quite a high ‘punishment rating’ to a dog like Banjo.

One of the probable fallouts from this ‘time-out’ process is this: Banjo has become scared when the younger brother comes home from work and initially runs and hides. He then behaves in an appeasing manner before settling back to his normal friendly and excitable self. My guess is it’s because he has been on imposed ‘time-outs’ in the porch on one or two occasions when the young man has came in through the front door from work. Negative associations.

Punishment or correction can seem to come from nowhere – out of the blue.

How do we feel when with an unpredictable person who is loving one minute and angry with us the next? I have lived with someone like this and it’s like treading on eggshells and you can’t relax. (Take another look at my favourite video – the poor man doesn’t know when the next punishment is coming or what it’s for).

There is another more obvious example where fallout of punishment (which they may not have regarded as punishment) has affected Banjo. It is probably responsible for his more recent wariness of children.

A young child and her mother came to stay with them for a few days over Christmas. Banjo seemed fine with the child initially – if he was uneasy they didn’t read the signs. The child wasn’t actively supervised all the time and would be pestering him. Banjo growled. Everyone reacted angrily and Banjo would have been frightened.

The dog will not have understood why, despite all his polite warnings, he was eventually forced to growl in order to protect himself. The result, to him, was his humans suddenly acted irrationally and in a way that scared him.

It’s not a big step to conclude that his fear of children approaching him when they are out since this episode is fallout from this ‘punishment’. He has built up a negative association.

They had Banjo from eight weeks of age, and very early on one of the adult sons played light-chasing games. He still regularly ‘entertains’ Banjo by nudging the lampshade to make shadows dance around the walls and floor. Each time someone picks up their mobile phone the dog starts looking for a light to chase, as a mobile phone light has been used for chasing games.

It’s such a shame. Sensitive dogs so quickly get OCD-type obsessions.

The young men will now do all they can to avoid light chasing games and anything else that stirs up their sensitive dog or scares him.

With a more positive and consistent approach by his humans, with all three ‘drinking from the same water bowl’ so that they become more predictable, Banjo is sure to become more confident.  More confidence will affect his whole life, particularly when out on walks.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Banjo. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page)


Border Collie’s Life Blighted by Bangs

Border Collie can hear bangs when we can'tPoor Border Collie Sweeper does not feel safe. In some areas of the country automatic bird-scarers and those fired like rockets are going off like fireworks throughout daylight hours. At each bang Sweeper panics.

He can hear them even when we can’t. A dogs hearing can be up to 40 times better than ours.

He came over from Ireland two years ago – he’s now three – and it took them a while to discover the connection between his extreme fearfulness and bangs. He can rally during hours of darkness when bird-scarers are banned and during those few months that are quiet, but it’s only a temporary reprieve – false security. When I was there, with no bang for a while, he gradually became more confident and trusting, came out of hiding and started to play like a young dog should – see on the left. Then there was a bang that we all could clearly hear. Immediately Sweeper ran for cover. He is so brave but keeps getting knocked back! He is a gentle, obedient and sweet dog. No wonder the owners are so distressed for him.Sweeper can relax at home

Asking lots of questions, I dissected the situation in order to work out what we could do. The fact that something must have happened during the first year of his life to cause it is something that is already done, so we devised a plan for moving forward. This involved not so much approaching the problem directly, but working on changing Sweeper’s general stress levels and his confidence in his owners. By their own behaviour they need to convince him that they are ‘his rock’. Until now they had believed it would give him confidence to make all the major decisions in his life when I believe it’s the opposite. He decides when to get the lady out of bed in the morning, when and where he eats, where he sleeps or spends the day, when he is touched and for how long, whether or not he will go outside in the garden and so on.

We can’t merely approach this head on. My reasoning is that a good parent or ‘leader’ would also be the main decision maker – and most importantly the ‘protector’. Sweeper needs to see this as the role of his humans, not himself. His confidence in his owners needs building up. For now, walks need to be only either when it’s dark and there are no bangs, or in town parks where there are no bangs.  If he misses a walk altogether it is much is less harmful to him than panic. In the order of importance to dogs (and to us) food, air and physiological necessities come first, followed closely by keeping safe. Exercise comes down the list.

The problem itself needs to be worked on. How should the owners be reacting when he’s scared at home – let alone when out? How should they deal with it? How can he be desensitised? From a new basis of confidence both in himself and his humans, he will be in a position to move slowly forward.

We have a plan, but it will be ‘slowly slowly catchee monkey’!

Border Collie Cross Attacked a Puppy

Border Collie Blaze on the sofa with the two other dogsBlaze is a four-year-old Collie – maybe Collie X. He lives with two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in a lovely family with two little girls and three cats. He is wonderful with both the little girls and the cats – and the other two dogs.

He has attacked other dogs several times when out on walks, but never causing damage. His owners are very careful, but a week ago he attacked a puppy. They had been walking with a friend and several other dogs and had also met two Labradors. It was near the end of the walk. Because of Blaze’s previous  history, whenever they saw a new dog, the lady would catch Blaze and put a muzzle on him. On this occasion she wasn’t quick enough.

They are very responsible dog owners and the lady is devastated for the injured puppy which is why they called me in.

Blaze would never show any aggression to a human. He is biddable and loving if somewhat demanding and lacking in manners. As we chatted, they began to realise that the dogs, Blaze in particular, get away with behaviours that would never be tolerated from their children – standing on the sofa, walking over them, pawing and nudging for constant attention.

Before they even set out on a walk there is huge excitement. The dogs charge out ahead and pull the lady down the road. Due to a certain lack of respect in other aspects of life, it’s unlikely that Blaze, when off lead, will feel there is any reason why he should come back straight away when called if there is something else he needs to do – like warn off an approaching dog.

At home Blaze is restless. He paces. He is demanding. He looks permanently anxious. He is most settled when nobody is about.

If the exact circumstances preceding these attacks could be remembered, I would bet that he had a build up of excitement and stimulation. He is permanently stressed to a certain extent, and it won’t take too much more to drive him over the edge. When he sees a dog his humans panic, they catch him, put a muzzle on and so on – which must be transferring even more stress onto Blaze.

He must never again have the opportunity to attack dogs while off lead. Full stop.

Hard work needs to be done on his recall and his relationship with his owners so that he feels that they are sufficiently important to come back to immediately when they call him. With work he should be able to leave the house calmly, to walk happily and comfortably down the road on a loose lead. They will be careful not to overdue the stimulation that can come from long bouts of play. Sometimes too much exercise can worse than not enough, and it is interesting that the final bad attack happened at the end of a long walk with lots of action, when one would have expected him to be tired and satisfied.

In a calm state of mind Blaze is unlikely to suddenly ‘go’. With a better balanced relationship with his owners, he will obey pronto when the call ‘come’.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.