“How do I discipline my puppy?” I get asked so frequently. 

I always have to take a moment to rephrase this in my head as the word “discipline” has a very negative emotion attached. I remind myself that we’re not looking to spank our puppies, but rather to teach them right from wrong. 

Well, isn’t that where we go wrong, right off the bat! Let me tell you why (it’s about to get scientific and nerdy…):

Morality (principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour) resides mostly in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) – that fabulous hunk of brain behind your forehead. This PFC makes up approximately 12.51% (volume) of the human brain. A dog’s PFC is nowhere near that percentage (but scary enough, a raccoon’s PFC is 10% of their brain!). #uselessfacts 

Dogs have evolved to have specific skillsets and morality is not one of them. When making decisions, they don’t questions whether it’s good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, or whether it will offend someone. They make decisions based on safety and reinforcement. Is it safe to do this? What will I get out of it? Is there a reinforcement waiting for me on the other side? 

Fido jumps on the counter to grab the roast beef sandwich because the payoff is FAB-U-LOUS. If you punish Fido for jumping on the counter or food-theft, he will avoid doing either. WHILE YOU ARE PRESENT.

Leave the room or leave the house and he will absolutely jump on the counter and steal food. There is no chance of punishment if the punisher is not around to deliver. 

What you have taught Fido by using punishment is that it is not safe to counter-surf while you are around. Not terribly helpful. 

Discipline means to teach so let’s do just that; teach dogs what to do instead of what NOT to do.

In order to teach our dogs, it’s best to treat them like you would a 2-3 year old child. Set them up to win so that they can build confidence and learn, stress-free. Set them up to win so that they are consistently reinforced for the right stuff.

Humans tend to sway in the opposite direction; we set dogs up to fail so that we can punish them. It’s not because we’re inherently bad, but for some reason along the way, this became the norm with dog-training. “They’re just dogs” we said. 

“They’re just dogs” we said, before we learned that they are sentient beings who are highly emotional and sensitive.

Then, a great deal of studies came out that prove that stress-free learning lasts longer, that using punishment and aversive methods to train dogs makes them unreliable and even dangerous. 

Sounds familiar, right? Ah yes – spanking children is no longer accepted! That’s right! #highfive 

Punishment activates the fight/flight response and this becomes the default pathway in the brain later, when the dog is challenged. By using punishment, we are teaching the dog to cope with a threat or a stressor by running away (flight) or becoming aggressive (fight). This in turn, creates a pessimistic learner who may learn to generalise this and assume that all people [ or other associated triggers ] are dangerous. 

It is far more important to create a relationship based on trust. It is in this relationship of trust that you will find reliability and a safe dog. 

The effectiveness of your training is only as good as the relationship you have. 

So the question still remains, “How do I discipline my puppy?” – you teach them. Don’t worry about teaching them right from wrong – you’ll be barking up the wrong tree. Teach them what you want them to do and reinforce it heavily. 

“…behaviours that are followed by consequences that are satisfying to the organism are more likely to be repeated…” ~ Edward Thorndike, Psychologist, 1911

Here is the Coles’ Notes version of how to teach: 

  1. set the learner up for success by arranging the environment in such a way that the learner cannot fail (an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure)
  2. lure, prompt, capture, or shape the behaviour you want to see repeated
  3. reinforce, reinforce, reinforce (using what the learner finds reinforcing)
  4. repeat
  5. start from #1 in new environments in order to generalise the desired behaviour
  6. repeat and maintain the behaviour with regular reinforcement
  7. re-train as necessary (hey – we all forget stuff!)