From The Blog, From The Expert, Terrible Teens

Reinforcing positive behaviour in your dog

Tip Five From the Expert: Getting the most out of your dog
From the series 10 Tips on How to Form a Lifelong Bond with your Dog

Here’s the thing with punishment…

It works. However, that doesn’t mean we should use it; behaviour is often an expression of an emotional state. Take the dog that barks at other dogs when it’s on a lead. He or she is almost certainly doing this because they perceive a threat, is anxious about it and responding in the only way they instinctively know how – by barking.

Common advice is to scruff your dog’s neck in the way his or her Mum might do to instil discipline and show them who’s boss. However, in their mind, you’re only confirming that:

other dogs = bad things happen

thereby strengthening that negative association, and telling them they were right to be worried. The dog might stop barking, because it doesn’t want you to scruff its neck – or it might get worse because they are more anxious – but it will do nothing to alleviate his underlying anxiety, the reason he’s barking in the first place. This is why I personally don’t advocate using punishment of any kind.

There is also no evidence that dogs somehow see us as other dogs and try to interpret our behaviour accordingly. They have spent many thousands of years learning about the tiny nuances of our body language, that when your lips move up a fraction you’re pleased with them, they’re amazing at it. They know we’re not dogs and that’s the beauty of our relationship. I believe we do them a disservice thinking otherwise.

We can, therefore, capitalise on our dog’s incredible ability to read us, and want to please us, rather than relying on techniques that at best suppress something they are trying to tell you, and at worse cause confusion, anxiety or even pain.

So the best way is to reinforce and reward positive behaviour instead of using punishment.

In my experience many people feel they have to be seen to punish their dog because it has done something ‘naughty’ like jumping up at someone out walking. I’ve often heard:

“I felt like I had to tell him off”

I’ve felt like this myself. I used to tell my collie off because I wanted to please someone I’d never met before and would never meet again… Humans eh?

So my top tip when it comes to punishing your dog would be don’t – reward good behaviour instead!

For more information about why punishment and status reduction (‘dominance’) programmes should be avoided click here.

Tip Six is all about recall and being realistic about your expectations and will published next Friday as usual.


Rachel Leather – Animal Behaviourist

For the last 12 years, Rachel has been helping others understand and manage the behaviour of dogs, cats and horses. After studying Psychology at Cardiff University, she went on to complete her Masters degree in animal behaviour at the University of Exeter. Rachel then ran a degree programme in Applied Animal Behaviour, teaching others the knowledge requirements to become a behaviourist, and set up a referral clinic to enable her students to gain practical experience of behaviour consultations. She enjoyed this so much that, although no longer lecturing, continues to see behaviour cases on referral from vets and runs CPD classes for vets and other professionals.

You can discover more about Rachel’s professional work here.

To discover more about the series please click here.

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