Treats, punishment and beyond

By Jeff Stallings

There’s an on-going flap over two dog training philosophies, positive reinforcement vs. punishment: Using food treats to compel a dog to behave correctly versus using pain or fear to accomplish the same.

What gets lost in the sometimes contentious back-and-forth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dog training. Each puppy and dog is unique, or as my dog-adoring mother used to say “a snowflake distinct among snowflakes”. So while innate behavior instincts are similar across the species and breeds, each dog must be viewed as a distinct creature.

We must also make a distinction between objective training on the one hand and behavior modification on the other; I employ different modes of training for each of these broad categories. Positive reinforcement, with judicious use of well-timed treats, is ideal for objective training, such as teaching a puppy to sit/stay or training a dog to high-five. Behavior modification, which addresses ingrained problems such as aggression, leash-pulling or separation anxiety, is rarely effective when limited to food-based training.

Most of my clients hire me to address problem behaviors. I never use fear or pain to train a dog because fear is counterproductive 100% of the time, and pain is unnecessary except in extreme cases of dangerous aggression. That said, to quickly modify dog behavior there must be a consequence for inappropriate behavior. (Some trainers will advise you to simply ignore a dog’s bad behavior, yet I don’t know of any parent who employs this tactic on their kids!) Note that in regards to dog training, “consequence” is not the same as “punishment“: I do not advocate inflicting pain in any way. But there are far more expeditious ways to teach a dog not to jump on people, for example, than ignoring the behavior.


About Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Having owned well-trained dogs all my life, I started Better Nature Dog Training to exploit decades of experience teaching across a number of fields. I am nationally-certified through the highly-respected Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and am a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. I teach people how to effectively train their dogs by clearly demonstrating that every interaction counts when training a dog to come when called, for example, or instructing a puppy how to best get along in life. I take a scientific and holistic approach to dog training. The scientific aspect comes from understanding dog psychology from an evolutionary perspective, knowing how dogs are both similar to and distinct from their ancestors, including the grey wolf. The holistic component derives from taking into account all facets of any particular dog’s situation, including upbringing, prior training, traumatic events and—most importantly—the characteristics of his home and family life. Training a puppy or dog can be a most rewarding life experience; it can also be stressful and perplexing. One of the best services I provide is taking the guesswork out while lending a sure, guiding hand in successful dog behavior development and modification.
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