Negative Punishment: Make sure you’re using it effectively

In the world of force-free training, we have two options when installing new behaviors or modifying existing ones: We can reward desired behaviors and we can punish undesired ones. Punishment involves removing the “good stuff” when the dog does a behavior we want to decrease (known as negative punishment in operant conditioning terminology). The dog learns through repetition each time he does a certain behavior, the good stuff goes away, therefore reducing the dog’s motivation to maintain that particular behavior. (Good stuff refers to anything the dog desires when doing the unwanted behavior: social proximity; access to food, toys, or other resources; attention; environmental rewards like walks and playtime with other dogs.) During training consults, I often compare negative punishment to giving a dog a “time out” from the good stuff.

Negative punishment is a valuable tool in a dog owners’ repertoire, provided it is executed correctly. Unfortunately, poor execution often leads to inconsistent behavior and poor follow through on the part of the owners. The following is a guide to improve your technique.


Dogs live in the moment. Attempting to punish or reward a behavior minutes, even seconds, after it has occurred lessens the chances your dog will understand why a particular consequence occurred. A classic example of poor timing is an owner who punishes a dog for a housetraining accident hours after it occurred. The dog will not understand he is being punished for urinating on the carpet. Instead, the dog will associate the punishment with whatever behavior immediately preceded it.

Being an effective dog trainer means having impeccable timing. It also means you need to be prepared to execute a time out the instant an undesired behavior occurs. Impeccable timing is difficult in real life. Time outs take time to execute, and many things can happen between the behavior in question occurring and the time out actually taking place. To improve accuracy, I instruct clients to use a word to mark the instant the undesired behavior occurs (I say “too bad!”). This “no-reward marker” bridges the gap between the dog’s behavior and the time out, making it clear to your dog which behavior lead to the punishment.

With repetition, the dog learns the following contingency:

Behavior A –> “Too Bad!” –> Time Out
If Behavior A always results in removal of the good stuff, dogs will realize Behavior A is not profitable (and dogs are always seeking to do what’s most profitable).

Is it a time out?

Sometimes, owners think they are executing a time out, when in actuality the dog is not receiving negative punishment. To repeat: Time outs equal the removal of the good stuff. If your dog is not experiencing removal of the good stuff, he is not receiving negative punishment.

Consider a gregarious puppy who consistently jumps on his owners. The owners, in an effort to decrease the behavior, always push the dog away and say “No! No! Off!” The puppy’s behavior continues because he is still receiving the good stuff: Social proximity and attention. To many puppies, verbal feedback, even the words “No” and “Bad dog,” and eye contact are reward enough to continue performing the behavior.

A better strategy for these owners would be to mark each time the dog jumps up with a “too bad,” and proceed to turn their backs or leave the room for 30 seconds, avoiding all further eye contact and verbal feedback. This protocol gives the dog clear feedback on what behavior results in the punishment, and also prevents the dog from receiving the social proximity and attention he desires when doing the behavior.

Remember: If your dog is still receiving the good stuff during a time out, it’s not effective. Make sure your time outs are boring, void of whatever your dog desires when he does the unwanted behavior. This means no eye contact, no verbal feedback, no attention, no access to desired resources, and no playtime.

Follow Through

Often, owners claim negative punishment is not effective, when in actuality they give up too soon. Dogs learn through repetition. Erasing bad habits is hard work, and even harder if the dog receives mixed feedback by sometimes being allowed to do a certain behavior and sometimes receiving punishment.

Follow through with a time out each instance the behavior occurs. Occasionally timing out a behavior, and occasionally letting the dog get away with it, will only serve to make the behavior stronger – the dog learns the behavior is profitable often enough to make it worthwhile. If you aren’t able to execute a time out, make sure you manage the dog’s environment to prevent rehearsal of the unwanted behavior. This will preserve your training and ensure more efficient results. (For example, if your dog consistently jumps up on guests, keep him on leash or behind a barrier during dinner parties to preserve your training.) Most importantly: Don’t give up!

Don’t Time Out Fear

Use protocols based on whether your dog is upset or not upset. If your dog is doing a behavior because he is afraid, a time out will not solve the problem. Learn to recognize when your dog is behaving out of fear.

Optimizing Success

Negative punishment is most effective when paired with positive reinforcement. When punishing a particular behavior, make sure to teach the dog an alternate, more desired behavior to do in its place. If your dog jumps on guests, teach him to sit for greetings. If your dog gets mouthy when playing with you, teach him to play without using his teeth on your skin. If your dog barks for his dinner, teach him to sit quietly to wait for his food.