Coercion: A cry for help that calls for empathy

Coercion is not the root of all evil, but until we adopt other than coercive ways to control each other’s conduct, no method of physically improving our species will keep our survival timer from running out. A developing science of behavior may again give people of good will cause for optimism about our chances for survival.” – Dr Murray Sidman, Coercion and Its Fallout

11024732_10104031911728457_1320314545778060191_nOver the years, I’ve witnessed corporal punishment in various forms and environments. As a social worker, I worked with individuals who were the victims of corporal punishment, and with individuals who inflicted corporal punishment on others. As a dog trainer, I see examples of corporal punishment toward dogs on an almost daily basis.

Using pain, fear and intimidation as a means to modify behavior is a contentious topic, isn’t new, and isn’t one that that’s going to be solved by one blog post. The more I work in the behavioral field, the more I realize how far we have to go to remove corporal punishment from our behavioral repertoire toward all sentient beings, including our own species. But how the dog training community chooses to respond to those using corporal punishment is integral to the conversation, both in reducing its occurrence and maintaining an open dialogue for those searching for help.

“It seems apparent that what a person is doing either isn’t working or is self-destructive; you can see a better way, yet the person persists in the same behavior. In a way, it is captured in the words, ‘You would think…’  … We are not always sensible creatures.” – William Miller, Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change

In many ways, corporal punishment is a cry for help in a desperate situation. We see it many times in dog owners and in other humans. People who own dogs face immense social pressure to ensure their dogs “behave.” Dog behavior is a muddy topic for many, a coagulation of myth, self-help and science. For some dog owners, they may not know another way to interact with their dogs. For others, they may fear that without corporal punishment, they will lose control and find themselves unable to manage their dogs.

Therein lies the need for empathy so that this doesn’t have to be the way forward for so many dogs and their humans.

Empathy for owners doesn’t mean we condone corporal punishment. But it does mean we look at the circumstances surrounding why they are using it so that we can educate, assuage fears, and create an open dialogue. Shame, blame, and finger-pointing are forms of coercion, and quite potent ones at that. As force-free trainers know, coercion shuts down behavior. When used on clients, it closes the dialogue, and closes an opportunity to change a human-dog relationship for the better.

Yes, there will be cases where we have to walk away, cases of blatant abuse that cannot go unreported. But for most of our dog training clients, their use of coercion stems from misinformation and fear. They need our compassion and help to understand there is a better way.

Empathy is not easy. The responsibility that comes with working in the behavior field, regardless of the species, should not be taken lightly. The circumstances that lead to a dog owner choosing to use corporal punishment are tragic. Incidents of dogs receiving corporal punishment are tragic. It’s not ok, and it’s something that occurs all too frequently for all species humans interact with. But if there’s one thing on which we cannot not waver, it’s this: Coercion is not ok to modify behavior, whether it’s used on dogs or their humans.

– Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at

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  1. Pingback: Dog training: On mindfulness, unrelenting kindness, and working with ‘what is’ – Mutt About Town

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