Selling Snake Oil: Stopping Behaviour Doesn’t Make a “Good Dog”

A professional dog trainer said to me recently that most dog owners “just want the dog not to jump, nip, yap nonstop; don’t snap, don’t fight and don’t take a dump on my Persian rug.” I’m sure that from the perspective of most professional dog trainers, that appears to be the case. People come to them daily with this problem or that problem and these people simply want the problem to stop. I’m sure that most professional dog trainers will tell you that they make the bulk of their money telling dog owners how to get their dog to stop chewing on furniture, stop barking out the window, stop pulling on their leash, stop peeing in the house, stop guarding their toys and so on. Cesar Millan has made a career as a dog training media celebrity doing exactly that.

I cannot tell you the number of dog owners who use traditional force training methods with their dogs who have shown me how “good” their dog is by demonstrating what their dog will NOT do.

Having raised three dogs using behavioural science and reinforcement based training, I am at something of a loss to understand the logic of that. None of those three dogs soiled the house after house-training, none has ever chewed anything but the toys we have given them, they don’t bark non-stop, they don’t fight, and they are generally very good companions.

But my description of them is that they can tell me when they need to go out, they have learned to chew on the appropriate items when they want to chew, they have learned to be quiet if asked, and they will listen to a number of commands to “drop” items, “leave” things alone, or “come” when called.

This may sound like a small semantic distinction but I believe it speaks to a larger mind set.  I think it’s a significant shift in perspective to define your dog by what they are instead of what they are not. Unfortunately our prevailing culture sets up the dog as an adversary rather than a student. We are challenged as dog owners to make sure our dog doesn’t do undesirable things. We are to keep the dog from behaving badly and he is only supposed to behave on command. A “good dog” is one who sits quietly, taking no initiative, unless summoned by his owner to perform.

Lessons from the Psychology Lab

In reading Dr. Murray Sidman’s book Coercion and Its Fallout, I was struck by the section on “conditioned suppression.” Throughout the book, Sidman describes the responses of laboratory rats to various behavioural experiments involving punishments, usually in the form of non-lethal electrical shocks delivered through the floor of the cages. He describes our culture as so familiar with the use of punishment in daily life that we are rarely surprised to find ourselves in either the role of the punisher or the punished. In previous chapters of the book, experiments are described where behaviours are “taught” by having the desired behavior turn off the shock (“escape” behaviour) or to prevent the shocks from being delivered if the desired behaviour is performed after some warning sign (“avoidance” behaviour).

But what happens when the shock becomes inevitable? What if the rat can find no behaviour that successfully escapes or avoids the shock? The experiment was simple. The rat was shown a lever that would reliably produce food. At intervals, a tone is sounded for one minute. At the end of one minute, the tone stops and a shock is delivered to the rat. It’s important to note that during this one minute, the food lever continues to operate normally and will produce food if pressed.

The shock was unavoidable. The tone was simply information that the shock was coming. One might expect that after a few shocks the rat would simply note the shock was coming and work through the tone so long as food was availalble. That was the surprise for me — it didn’t. After only a few repetitions, the rat stopped working for the food as soon as the tone sounded; it’s behaviour became “suppressed” in the presence of the warning tone. In human society we call this condition “anxiety” — when something bad is going to happen and there is nothing we can do to escape or avoid it.

This is a video re-creation of the experiment above. In the video, the green musical note indicates the tone sounding and the yellow arrow indicates the shock.

A Frightening Parallel

At that point, I had to put the book down for a few minutes. A frightening prospect had flashed across my mind.  What if I were the shock? What if my tone of voice or even my presence was the warning tone for my dog? Is it possible that dog trainers had confused conditioned behaviour suppression for good training? I thought back to the traditional training I had done with our Vince many years ago. Until he died, Vince behaved differently around me than he did around my wife. In retrospect, I believe that this is because I was the one who did most of the punishment with Vince. In some ways, I never stopped being the warning tone to Vince, his behaviour was always subdued around me.

If we look at some of the traditional methods of training a dog, the “escape” and “avoid” options become obvious. In training “heel” in traditional training, choke chains allow the dog to avoid having the chain tightened if they respond to the sound of the chain as we “pop” it. If they do not comply, pressure is applied with some authority. That pressure is usually kept there until the dog complies with our wishes and we release the pressure allowing the dog to “escape” the unpleasant feeling by doing what we want. In the linked video, a shock collar is also used to continue the “heel” training without the leash present. It’s an interesting approach given the rat experiment we saw above.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

And you know what? It works! Traditional training has worked for decades. It has been systematized and new equipment has been introduced for the dogs to avoid or escape. And we tend to do more of what works.

In his book, Sidman describes a behavioural therapist who successfully used electric shocks to prevent an autistic child from tearing at his skin and eyes. That therapist then went on to suggest electric shock as treatment for any number of behavioural problems. If some is good, more must be better, right?

Maybe not. Behavioural suppression may not be as specific as you might think. I’ve learned from my work with reinforcement training that being less than precise can produce differences in behaviour. The animal simply tries what it thinks will work to get the reward. The reverse must also be true. The less precise we are with punishment, the less likely the dog is to behave for fear of being punished. This is particularly true if the dog is trained using escape and avoidance training to produce the desired behaviours. In the end, the dog only behaves when he is sure the will not be punished for what they do. Good dog.

What Most Dog Owners Want

I remember reading a post on an internet forum from behaviourist Kellie Snider when she described a dog she had been called in to work with as “clinically insane.” Snider knows what she’s talking about. With both a bachelors degree and a masters degree in behavioural analysis, she has over 20 years experience with animal behaviour. Her statement took my breath away. I had never considered that animals could go insane but her description of an animal that could not make sense of its world or its life fit perfectly. Here was an animal driven mad and its behaviour showed every indication of it. Snider’s recommendation in that particular case was to have the dog put down.

Is it possible that the effects of all this inappropriately applied punishment causes some of the very behaviours that owners then want to stop?  I think so.  Is it possible that some of the remedies suggested by punishment advocates and traditional trainers can make the situation worse or create new problems?  If I understand what Dr. Murray Sidman and other behaviourists say about punishment, I think it’s very likely.

Popular trainers like Cesar Millan may be very experienced and gifted in their application of punishment as a behaviour modification technique but they are also demonstrating their talents to a public that does not posess their professional level of skill or experience, to say nothing of their knowledge of dogs.  They are, in effect, selling a quick remedy to the common dog owner.  Behavioural Snake Oil to cure all your canine problems.

But like the Snake Oil sold over the centuries, let the buyer beware because force and intimidation based training can cause more harm than it cures.  Not only could it not address your problems but it could cause new problems in your dogs.  If you don’t believe me, head down to your nearest dog pound or rescue shelter.  Every dog there came from somewhere.  Many are from good homes with well intentioned owners who didn’t have all the facts before doing what some professional dog trainer told them.

We live in the age of information.  Be sure to check out all of your alternatives when working with your dogs. Science is providing a wealth of information on dogs and dog behaviour and much of it is available at your local bookstore, library, and even free on the internet. If a trainer makes a suggestion to you in working with your dog, make sure you understand it and that it makes sense to you.  Remember that your dog has his or her own view of you too. Don’t become the warning signal.


I want to dedicate this article to my beloved Vince who made me look at myself and at dogs. I miss you, my friend, and I hope that wherever you are, you can forgive me.

Additional Resources

The Problem with Punishment
Using “Dominance” to Explain Behaviour is Old Hat Science News

Photo Credits
“Caution” @ Flickr – Allyaubry 2008

Recent Eric Brad Articles:


  1. avatarladychaunceybarkington says

    LOVED IT! As usual. In fact, I JUST posted something like this to wall. I used the term Response Depression, instead of Conditioned Suppression though. (In addition, I find that people are MOST impressed with my service dog when she’s NOT doing anything at all! Just laying there quietly and waiting!!)

    “Since when is creating general response depression a fix for behavioral problems?

    James O’heare in his book Changing Problem Behavior, defines this as, “animals exposed to aversive stimulation may exhibit response depression, particularly if the aversive stimulation is inescapable and/or unavoidable. They tend to perfrom only “safe” behaviors and they otherwise behave as little as possible, with minimal variation, novelty and spontaniety; they are rigid and lack “enthuisism” and creativity.”

    Through my study of animal behavior, it’s my opinion that animals “disobey” for many reasons and blowing off instruction is rarely one, so that would lead me to reason that aversive stimuli IS unescapable and/or unavoidable. With a high degree of aversives (unpleasant stimulus), what might be mistaken as “enthusiasm” is often just a frantic rush to avoid a correction.”

    • avatar says

      Thanks for your comments!

      Excellent points. “Response Depression” is a very descriptive term for a behaviour suppressed dog but it carries some human “baggage” with it. Depression is a state of mind and we cannot know with certainty what a dog’s state of mind may be. We can only see that their outward behaviour is suppressed. Most often, in my experience, the best response to a behaviourally suppressed dog is to change the handler’s interaction with the dog. Labelling the behaviour as “depression” might cause some owners to look for pharmaceutical remedies that might be unnecessary.

      Your comments regarding frantic dogs and enthusiasm are spot on. Dr. Murry Sidman describes “escape” and “avoidance” behaviours in his book “Coercion and Its Fallout.” The ultimate result of unsuccessful escape or avoidance strategies is resignation. The dog just gives up. Behavioural suppression.

      Thanks for reading!

      • avatarladychaunceybarkington says

        I’m going to have to read that book! While I believe the term applies to the depression of behavior, rather than behaviors symptomatic of depression, you have a good point and I may start using Behavioral Suppression instead. Shared in the ban shock collars group and will be reblogging if I can as well, with due credit of course. Clients need to realize they’ve been had. They’re not getting the underlying problem addressed. The symptoms are being cleverly swept under the rug.

  2. avatarSharon Normandin says

    Great article, and great insight for you to start wondering if the owner/handler’s presence is acting as the warning tone! I was really moved by watching that poor rat just freeze and wait for the shock when the tone started. And it’s not all about hurting the animal; those shocks were very mild and of short duration. It’s all about what the animal learns or does not learn. Sure, leash pops and even well-timed short hits with an e-collar are not causing excruciating pain to the dog, but they aren’t teaching the dog to perform the desired behaviour because it has a lot of value to him. I also liked your remark about Cesar being able to administer punishers with great skill and timing, hence it does work for him, and a very small percentage of equally gifted trainers out there. The average person, especially the average pet owner, does not have that skill. There IS a better way, so why not use it? I’m reminded of a comment a very well-known horse trainer made, regarding the use of draw-reins (a restrictive aid) in training horses. To apply it to dog training, I’ll say that in the hands of anyone other than a very talented expert, punitive methods such as e-collars and prong/choke collar corrections are a disaster, and a truly talented expert does not need them.

  3. avatarEmily says

    Brilliant article, thanks for writing it! It’s a sad truth about our interactions with dogs and this message needs to reach so many people. I will be directing a lot of traffic here.

  4. avatarErica says

    It is amazing to me how many otherwise educated and smart people, including a lot of who love dogs, “know” that dog training is about dominance, and that punishment based methods work best for training dogs (though people who use such methods will often argue that “leash pops” and “electric stimulations” don’t hurt or upset their dogs). But when I really think about it, it isn’t so amazing after all. The list of things that “everyone knows” that are just plain wrong would encircle the Earth’s equator many times and is not confined to conventional wisdom about dogs. A quick glance at the way that we humans interact with one another suggests that we as a society (especially in the U.S. for some reason) are still addicted to the idea that force and punishment are the best approach to solving problems with everything from child rearing to international relations in spite of decades of hard data that say otherwise.

  5. avatar says

    I just read this article and find it fascinating. I would be very interested in learning more, and if you can recommend any videos I would be appreciative. I am a very visual learner, so reading is tough for me, especially time wise.
    My one question though, from watching Cesar’s methods, I don’t see what he does as punishment. What I see on a constant basis is redirection and calming. When he puts the dogs on their side, he then ensures they are calm, relaxed.
    I have been in the situation where I am confronted with a dog that is severely aggressive, and I cannot think of any type of positive reinforcement that will stop the aggression.
    Cesar’s “exercise, discipline and affection” method is correct. In our society, too many people treat animals as though they are human, and they miss the boat. Humanizing causes all kinds of serious issues, and these dogs wind up in rescue and have to be basically deprogrammed.
    Too many people think putting a dog in the backyard is exercise, and let the dogs run rampant all over them, and again, aggression because of lack of limitations results.
    If there is a better way, I am all ears! :)

    • avatar says

      Hi Sally –

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

      In response to your comment on Cesar Millan’s methods, I would suggest the following. You describe it as “he puts the dogs on their side, then ensures they are calm, relaxed,” In fact, Millan is restraining the dog, a condition that most dogs will not prefer. Like the shock in the cage with the rat in my article, the dog quickly finds that there is nothing they can do to avoid being put on their side and held there until they give up any behaviour that works against it. I would suggest to you that the dog is either A) escaping the unwanted pressure by complying with the posture or B) going into behaviour suppression. In either case, I would highly doubt the animal is “relaxed” but rather in the same “anxious” state demonstrated by the rat in at the end of the video above. One clear indication to watch for would be panting, an overt sign of nervousness or anxiety. We need to be able to see the difference between behaviour suppression and “calm, submissive behaviour”, if there is any.

      With regards to confronting dogs that are severely aggressive, my first goal is always to turn off the aggression. One quick way is food. Nothing redirects a scavenging species (dogs) like food. If the dog won’t take food, their arousal level is too high and you need to change the circumstances. Meeting the aggression with aggression can produce submission in the dog but I would argue that you haven’t addressed the underlying cause, merely the symptom. And that aggression is going to come out in some other way.

      I would direct you to two sources for alternative approaches to treating aggression:
      1) Kellie Snider’s “Constructional Aggression Treatment” videos –
      2) Emma Parson’s book “Click To Calm” available from a number of sources but here is a link –

      With regards to your comments on “humanizing” dogs, I can’t agree with you more. In the same way we should not characterize dogs as “barely domesticated wild wolves”, we should also avoid thinking of them as little people in furry suits. My experience is that dogs become aggressive out of frustration. They live in inconsistent environments where behaviours work one day and not the next, are not permitted one moment and tolerated the next. The best thing we can do for our dogs is be consistent; no means no but also YES means YES. And I prefer to teach my dogs what I WANT rather than what I DON’T want. It’s a shorter list for one thing.

      I tell you from my heart Sally, there IS a better way. It took a confrontation with one of my own dogs who was turning aggressive on me to show me the way. I would encourage you to read my previous articles and click the links I’ve put in them for lots of good information.

      And please remember that Cesar Millan’s TV programs are first and foremost entertainment. It’s rare that actual behaviour problems are solved in 30 minutes. And there is a reason that National Geographic puts a warning on each show for owners not to try Cesar’s techniques at home.

      Thanks again for reading!

      • avatarSharon Normandin says

        Great reply, Eric. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that “positive” does not mean permissive. While we trainers who advocate non-aversive reinforcement-based training do not use harsh physical punishers to suppress or eliminate unwanted behaviours, we do use P- (negative punishment) when appropriate, although very sparingly and only when a strong history of reinforcement for the desirable behaviour has been established. Dogs do need to have boundaries, just like children and even us adults. I get very annoyed at trainers and owners who label us as “cookie pushers”, relying on bribery to get what we want and allowing our dogs to walk all over us and misbehave. They don’t understand the learning process, and it really is our job to try to educate them.

  6. avatarClaudine Sleik says

    Great piece Eric!
    I sure Vince not only forgives you, but is proud of the caring & thoughtful person you are today.
    Thank you.

  7. avatarSandra says

    I have watched many videos of shock experiments on lab animals over the years (in college psych classes) and am appalled at how willing we are to subject our dogs to similar situations. Thanks goodness we have viable alternatives for training. What is that phrase that the medical profession uses, “first do no harm”? That should apply to dog training.

  8. avatarLee-Ann says

    Another great article, Brad! It’s great to know that educated +R trainers are trying to get the word out about punishment and why we choose not to use it – not because it doesn’t work, but because we’ve found a better way.


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