Punishment is a natural consequence of the universal interpretation of the relationship between the act and responsibility for its consequences. This is the subject of universal agreement, inscribed in most of the existing normative systems. For many, it is also a sign of respect for the principle of justice. There is guilt, there must be punishment. And it's appropriate for the action. It seems obvious. Such are common intuitions.”[1] And yet intuitive knowledge often simplifies our picture of reality.

In this paper, I will impose a specific case of problem behavior of a dog on the theoretical picture of punishment. I decided that this concept should be discussed taking into account all the consequences it brings. At the same time, I would like to draw the reader's attention to the existence of a very thin line between punishment and ordinary abuse. “Punishment is defined not by a specific action, but by the effect it has on a dog's behavior. It is supposed to reduce the likelihood of future unwanted behavior and reduce its intensity.”[2] Unfortunately, this fine line is often crossed. Many times, despite the lack of any results from our actions, we tighten the screw, and then we stray far from the definition presented above. Aren't we looking for excuses for the way we allow ourselves to release our tension? Does the theoretical model of describing the problematic behavior of a dog fall under the concept of punishment? Let's stop together.

Some time ago I got a call from the owner of a 9 month old female Labrador Retreiver named Bella. She came to me with a problem that (quote) "makes it difficult for us all to live a normal life." After my visit, however, I verified the picture in a way - the "four-legged" in this "herd" are also not doing well. The biggest problem for Bella's owner was her "greed" for food, and in fact she couldn't get her out of the kitchen for any treasure. It was common for Bella to steal food from the kitchen counter, sometimes from the open fridge. The owners, focused on eliminating the problem, came up with a set of different punishments. From screaming, to spanking and finally grabbing the neck and "throwing" into the hall. They also mentioned that in the past two months Bella has become distrustful and aggressive "has been growling for a while and bit her husband a couple of times"

The learning theory defines the concept of punishment in terms of two techniques: positive and negative extinction. Within the meaning of the definition of positive punishment (P+), i.e. positive extinction (Jean Donaldson also uses the term "active punishment"[3]), the dog makes a mistake and experiences an aversive stimulus after the mistake. As a result of the object's action, something appears that it considers unfavorable. In the presented case, the aversive stimulus first took the form of verbal threats of punishment and then actual punishment administered by the owner's hand. According to the concept of negative punishment (P-), i.e. negative extinction (Jean Donaldson also uses the term "passive punishment"[4]), punishment consists in withdrawing positive reinforcement in order to reduce the likelihood of a given behavior. This is psychological punishment, not physical punishment. As a result of the object's action, something is lost that it perceives as desirable. It is a skillful manipulation of those elements of the environment that the dog perceives as valuable at a given moment. "Such punishments are far more humane than beatings or scares, and they work much better in training." "Properly applied punishment should bring a visible change in the dog's behavior already on the first and maximum the third time" [5]. Here, it would be good to use a signal of no reward, in the form of so-called training discs. Correctly used disks can interrupt undesirable behavior and support the word command.

Learning theory also uses the term negative reinforcement (R-), which is not synonymous with punishment, but I've taken the liberty of invoking this technique because I believe it carries an element of it. “….all events or stimuli unpleasant for the object, regardless of their intensity, which can be stopped or which the object is able to avoid, provided that he changes his behavior”[6]. If we want to stop the action of stimuli that cause pain, fear or discomfort for the object, do we not have to introduce these stimuli first? Isn't the screaming itself (which stops when the dog leaves the kitchen) a positive punishment for the bitch? “Even extreme negative reinforcement factors can simultaneously act as punishment”[7]

Immediate punishment can stop the behavior, but it does not improve it - we do not give the dog a signal on what to do to improve the behavior. In the pictured case, the dog does not know how to behave in order to benefit from it. He only leaves the kitchen when there is a scream or slap. The punishment given gives Bella no clue as to what is expected of her, and so she stubbornly returns to the kitchen. And isn't it better to give the bitch rewards by way of positive reinforcement when she stays away from the kitchen, e.g. in the hall on her blanket? By reinforcing such behavior, she will not take unproductive actions to stay in a place where staying does not bring her any benefits, in favor of a place where she is rewarded. Dogs quickly give up behaviors that do not bring any results.

For the punishment to be effective, the following criteria must be met. First, the intensity criterion. In order for the subject not to become immune to the stimulus, it must be intense enough to produce an immediate effect.[8] Bella's owners took a completely different approach, gradually increasing the intensity of the punishment. In the early stages, it was the word "get out" slightly raised, followed by screams, slaps, and then neck grabbing. It can therefore be concluded that the female dog gradually got used to the received punishment. The incentive of eating was much more intense than the punishment given from the very beginning.

Second, the punishment must be immediate. It must occur when the undesirable behavior is just beginning, otherwise the behavior may be reinforced in the meantime[9]. In most cases, the penalty is applied too late. When the dog is in action or worse, after.[10] When was the dog punished? While he was in the kitchen. If so, what behavior was he punished for? At that time, he probably performed many different activities, such as standing, lying and sitting alternately, so it is very likely that in his "understanding" he was punished for one of these activities - certainly not for being in the kitchen. In order to eliminate a given behavior, discouraging stimuli should be applied when the behavior begins, not during its duration.

Third, consistency. This means that all owners should punish the dog whenever the behavior occurs. In the described case, there was no consistency, the dog was once free in the kitchen and once he was reprimanded for it, usually by the husband. If there are no consequences, the dog will keep trying, especially if it was previously able to get food from the counter or refrigerator.

"Meeting the above criteria is practically possible only in laboratory conditions"[11]

Unfortunately, punishment (especially in an unskillful way) has many side effects. Looking at Bella's case, I divided them into three categories, due to the sphere they concern:

1. Effects affecting the dog's further learning/training process

2. Effects affecting the owner-dog relationship

3. Effects affecting the mental and physical condition of the animal

How can punishment affect a dog's learning processes? The owners mentioned that they had a problem with the arrangement of Bella, as they said - she is stubborn. Indeed, when trying the individual commands: sit, down, the female dog presented a whole set of calming signals. "Yeah - sometimes they scold me for sitting in the kitchen, and sometimes they put pressure on my ass and then I get a treat, I don't know what it is but just in case I won't do anything - I'm a little nervous, maybe scratching behind the ear will help relieve the tension..." Based on the presented case, it can be concluded that punishment by definition does not teach anything new, it inhibits learning, suspends the reaction but does not change it. The dog becomes a victim rather than a conscious participant in the learning process and progress is slow[12] Bella is stressed and negative states of mind are not conducive to learning.[13] Punishment is also often extinguished in general and the animal is discouraged from experimenting with different behaviors, which makes training very difficult[14].

And what happened in the "dog-human" pack in which the bitch came to live? Aggression appeared on the part of the owners - this is a clear signal for the dog that its use in the herd is acceptable. I asked the owner what happened after she first bit him. The answer: "how come, first I ran to the bathroom to disinfect my hand, and then I punished the dog handsomely" gave me a clear picture of the situation and what could have happened in the "consciousness" of the dog afterwards. From the dog's point of view - the strategy used, which was the attack, resulted in - the threat passed (it doesn't matter that the dog got hit later, because it didn't associate the spanking with the situation from ten minutes ago anyway), and since the tactic was effective, the behavior was reinforced. Hence the later attacks of aggression. Punishment affects the caregiver's behavior, most often worsening it and causing problems with the animal's behavior. There is a likelihood of increased anxiety, a possible deterioration of relations with the owner, when the punishment is associated with the person administering it. The following association appears in the animal's brain: human -> punishment, pain and fear.[15] The sight of the owner causes a negative emotional reaction. Punishment or threats don't teach the subject to change their misbehavior, but they teach them to try not to get caught.

What happens to the mental and physical condition of the punished dog? The observed female dog is clearly tense and stressed. I have never met a dog that presented such a wide range of calming signals in such a short time. The female dog is restless, walks all the time, panting and sometimes even urinating while walking. Punishment evokes a lot of emotions and can lead to fearful behavior, unpredictable reactions, avoidance behavior and learned helplessness.

The threat causes the heart rate to increase, the blood vessels of the heart to dilate, and all these reactions occur to prepare the dog's body to survive the threat. Norepinephrine activates the attack-and-flight system, increasing agitation and agitation. The strategy a dog will choose when faced with a threat depends on its temperament and previous experience. Animals use one or more of five specific behaviors: fight, flight, freeze, faint, or "flirt." Bella ran away from the kitchen many times, but when she was grabbed by the neck by surprise - she bit. Dogs choose this strategy extremely rarely - when all others fail and the animal is in trouble. “The animal must respond to the influences of its environment by engaging a whole combination of approach and avoidance behaviors. This, in turn, depends on emotional sensitivity to environmental events and is the result of learning in response to the consequences of those behaviors.” [16] Bella experiments with different behavior strategies, and what she is learning now is a great threat to her.

In closing, let me quote this quote again: “Punishment is defined not as a specific action, but by the effect it has on the behavior of the dog. It is to reduce the likelihood of unwanted behavior in the future and reduce its intensity.”[17] Its purpose is to extinguish undesirable behavior and change patterns of behavior in a given situation. Bella was yelled at, and when that didn't work, she was slapped. Then the next time she went into the kitchen anyway to rummage on the countertops. Therefore, if the owner's actions to eliminate a given behavior did not bring any results, can such educational tactics be called punishment or ordinary bullying? Effective punishment must be consistent, intense, and immediate, and meeting these criteria is only possible under laboratory conditions. So why do so many people use punishments and believe in their educational function? Well, if sometimes it reaches the subject for what behavior he was punished and accompanied by a strong fear of punishment, we strengthen our belief in the effectiveness of punishment. I often meet owners who are quite sure that their pet knows that he "did wrong" and feels guilty. If the punishment fulfills its task by effectively sustaining the behavior, we are dealing with the strengthening of the actions of the punisher, who will continue to apply the punishment[18]. In the case depicted by me, the punishment was not effective - it did not change the behavior of the bitch, on the contrary, it caused Bella to become a withdrawn dog, avoiding her owners. From my point of view, unfortunately, this fine line has been crossed.

Author: Edyta Gajewska



1. "Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof”, Jean Donaldson, Galaxy

2. "First Train Your Chicken", Karen Pryor, Media Rodzinna

3. "Okiem Psa", John Fisher, National Agricultural and Forest Publishing House

4. "Secrets of the Dog's Mind", Stanley Coren, Galaktyka


1. “My Dog” monthly, 2/2009 (209).


1. Quarterly of the Lesser Poland Teacher Training Center in Krakow "Hejnał Oświatowy" No. 4/70/2006


1. COAPE diploma course, Practical aspects of pet behavior and training, Module 2



[1] Quarterly of the Lesser Poland Center for Teacher Training in Krakow "Hejnał Oświatowy" No. 4/70/2006. Krzysztof Polak – ACTION AND PUNISHMENT. A VIEW FROM THE PEDAGOGIST'S PERSPECTIVE

[2] Monthly magazine "Mój Pies", 2/2009 (209), p. 36; Article: "Penalties without remorse", Krzysztof Nawrocki

[3] “Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof,” Jean Donaldson, Chapter 5, p. 182.

[4] “Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof,” Jean Donaldson, Chapter 5, p. 182.

[5] Monthly magazine "Mój Pies", 2/2009 (209), p. 36; Article: "Penalties without remorse", Krzysztof Nawrocki

[6] "Train Your Chicken First" by Karen Pryor, Chapter 4; p. 145.

[7] "Train Your Chicken First," Karen Pryor, Chapter 1; page 25.

[8] “Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof,” Jean Donaldson, Chapter 5, p. 221.

[9] “Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof,” Jean Donaldson, Chapter 5, p. 221.

[10] "A Dog's Eye", John Fisher, Chapter 5, p. 51.

[11] “Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof,” Jean Donaldson, Chapter 5, p. 221.

[12] “Dog and Man. How to live harmoniously under one roof,” Jean Donaldson, Chapter 5, p. 205.

[13] "Train Your Chicken First," Karen Pryor, Chapter 1; p. 141.


[15] "Secrets of the Dog Mind" by Stanley Coren, Chapter 11, p.196

[16] COAPE Diploma Course, Practical Aspects of Pet Behavior and Training, Module 2, p. 1

[17] Monthly magazine "Mój Pies", 2/2009 (209), p. 36; Article: "Penalties without remorse", Krzysztof Nawrocki

[18] "Train Your Chicken First," Karen Pryor, Chapter 1; p. 141.

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The dog bit my child - case study

Date of Consultation: 15.04.2010 Name and Surname of dog's owner: Bożena Borkowska (wife) 31 years Other family members: Adam Borkowski (husband) 33 years, Maciej Borkowski (son) 2 years Dog/Female: Bitch Name: Osa Breed: Typical Terrier Age of castration/spaying: 3 years...

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