Have you ever heard this one? It is something which people say quite often when they are using an aversive tool to train their dog. When we explain why we choose not to use aversive tools (spray bottles, shake cans, rolled up newspapers) their response is often “Oh, but I don’t even have to use it anymore – I just show it to him and he stops what he’s doing.”
The underlying reasoning to this justification, is that if you don’t have to deliver the physical punishment, but just “threaten” it, you are not hurting the dog, so it’s not detrimental in any way. However, this logic does not stand up to closer scrutiny and here is why:
In order for the dog to “stop” or “behave” when he sees the spray bottle or newspaper, the dog has to understand that the sight of this tool leads to something unpleasant happening. How do we define “unpleasant”? Well, in the context of punishment, we talk about something that is aversive – aversive being something that causes feelings of pain or fear. In order for a dog to stop their behaviour, the punishment has to create one of these feelings. If it was not scary or painful, the dog would not stop their behaviour. No matter what terminology you want to use, you cannot get away from the fact that punishing tools work, because they hurt or frighten dogs – yes, there may be degrees of pain and degrees of fear, depending on the nature of the tool being used and the temperament of the dog, but for some dogs, the sound of a newspaper slapping against them and the sight of the human that they rely on brandishing that newspaper, is worse then low level stimulation from a shock collar.
Once the dog associates the sight of an aversive tool with the punishment that it delivers, they will respond to the sight of the tool in an attempt to avoid the punishment. The sight of the tool becomes a signal of punishment and the dog will change their behaviour to avoid the actual punishment – there is usually no specific behaviour the dog chooses to do instead, but rather just a general inhibition (they stop doing anything) and possibly flight (get away from the situation) or appeasement (placate the scary human). If things go unexpectedly for the person holding the tool, you might even get “fight” (try and make the scary thing go away from you).
However, even if the dog avoids the physical punishment successfully, they have still experienced the psychological threat of punishment, which has emotional consequences. To use an extreme example: If a parent locked a child in the cupboard as a form of punishment, would there be no emotional consequences for the child if it got to a point where the parent just had to say: “Do you want to go in the cupboard?” or looked meaningfully at the cupboard door in order to get the child to immediately stop what they were doing? Of course not – being threatened with something scary or painful is still aversive!
Now, I am not suggesting that people who smack their dogs with newspapers or use spray bottles lock their children in cupboards – I am pretty sure most of them would be horrified at the thought of doing something like that. I am just highlighting the fact that “Well, I don’t actually have to hit/spray him anymore, I just pick it up” is still emotionally aversive and means that something nasty has been done to the dog in the past. Punishment only works if it is unpleasant! I could roll up a newspaper and threaten my dogs with it and they’d look at me happily and expectantly (is this some new fun game?) – they have no negative associations with such behaviour, because they have no experience of being hurt or frightened by something like that. Having your dog shut down, withdraw or offer appeasement as a result of the method you have chosen to train them with is nothing to be proud of.