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The Heart of Communicating with Your Dog 3: Understanding the Negative Marker and Using Punishment

Updated: Aug 10, 2023


a poodle with a bone
Miki, considering whether to guard the treat or not

So, if you’ve read my other two blogs in this mini-series (Understanding Reinforcement & Rewards and Understanding the Power of Our Tones) you’ll have a partial picture of the dog training scenario.


To round out our understanding, let’s talk about the controversial side of dog training, the elephant in the room that no one wants to address, and the most emotive aspect of working with dogs.


Punishment.

Corrections.

Consequences.


Call it what you will, if you are going to communicate clearly and fully with your dog, they need to understand what it is that they are doing that is wrong, or unacceptable to us, and I believe that they cannot get that from the absence of a reward alone.


So, let’s explore the negative marker and its role in training your dog AND how to use punishment effectively, appropriately and without resorting to violence.



The Negative Marker


a woman cuddles a poodle
One of the earliest selfies I ever took with Miki

Routinely when I speak with potential new clients, I ask them the question “Does your dog understand ‘no’?” Almost without exception, they explain that their dog understands ‘no’ but that their dog doesn’t care when they hear it.


This tells me that the client has no idea how to use it correctly, which is not surprising since most dog training these days teaches via positives only.


So, let’s define the negative marker.


It’s a word that is used to say ‘that behaviour is incorrect’. Wrong. Stop. Don’t do that. It needs to be used by the human at the moment in which the behaviour is taking place. Not in the lead-up to the behaviour. Not after the behaviour. Not when you find evidence of something that happened earlier on. And certainly not whilst you’re punishing your dog (if you choose to).


As the behaviour is happening. Ideally, as the behaviour begins but not after it has ended. This makes it clear to your dog what behaviour is unacceptable to you.


Your tone AND your timing are important here.


Make sure that you and everyone in the dog’s life are using the same marker. I suggest ‘no’ because it’s short, sharp, precise and can be made into a simple no for a simple mistake or a very strong, growly no for something more serious.


I generally avoid the use of ah, ahh, aagh and ah ah which are soft and far too easily warped into something that looks nothing like a negative marker. In theory, if they could be used clearly and consistently, they should not be problematic, but from 20 years of experience, I’ve yet to find a dog owner who can use them well, effectively and consistently.



Pairing the Negative Marker with Punishment


a poodle holds a drop stay
Miki learning to hold a drop when he was first in foster care

In general, if you are using a negative marker on its own, you are teaching your dog that the word that you are saying – whether it be no, stop, wrong, ah ah etc – has no relevance to them. That they don’t need to worry about it.

That, when you say it nothing happens.


It’s called learned irrelevance.


Like back in the good old days if your Mum would threaten a certain punishment if you didn’t do XXX, or if you kept doing YYY, but she never, ever followed through. You soon learned that the threat was completely without substance. Full of hot air.


That’s learned irrelevance.


Your dog knows if you are completely full of hot air or not.


So, this is where we need to add something to our ‘no’ to make it relevant to your dog, but without causing fear, intimidation, or pain. We want them to take us seriously, not turn them into a quivering mess in the corner.


Using Punishment Without Violence


a poodle with a tennis ball
We also did heaps of fun stuff - Miki playing ball

This is where punishment comes into play. Call it a correction if you like. The term consequence is less emotive and can be used but at the end of the day, they are all the same thing. Something negative that happens to back up the no.


If every single time you said no to your dog, they have something happen that hurts, causes fear or anxiety, or intimidates them, you’ll soon undermine a relationship that you want to build up. And, yes, in some dogs this would certainly cause aggression towards you.


However, I believe this is not a correction, but more like torture.


When I say no to my dogs, they know that they can expect a consequence, and they COME BACK TO ME TO GET IT, because they acknowledge they did the wrong thing and are not worried that I’m going to turn into Hitler or some raving maniac.


I’ll say no and walk them around in a circle. Slow. Controlled. Feet on the ground.


That’s generally the end of the story!


So, a consequence is something you add to your negative marker to make sure that it isn’t ignored, that you are not full of hot air, but that does not undermine the relationship between you and your dog.


So how might you use a correction?


Negative punishment = you take something away from the situation.

So, if your dog was jumping up trying to get their food bowl you might say no and lift the food up high - they lose their opportunity to get the food, temporarily.

If your dog was barking to get out of their crate quickly you might say no and move away from the crate - they lose their opportunity to get let out, temporarily.


Positive punishment = you add something into the situation.

If your dog was jumping up trying to get their food bowl you might say no and squirt them with a water bottle - something actively happens to them.

If your dog was barking to get out of their crate quickly you might say no and bang on the side of the crate - something actively happens to them.


You can certainly experiment with both positive and negative punishments - I use both - to see what things your dog cares about in which situations. Both will have their place, although some dogs really don’t care about negative punishments. If you are going to use a negative marker and a punishment, always use them in conjunction with one another and find what has meaning to your dog.


But my one MASSIVE caveat is that you should never, ever use punishment in isolation.


In all of the above examples, as soon as the dog stops jumping or barking they are praised and rewarded with what they originally wanted.



The Role of Positive Reinforcement Alongside Punishment


a poodle gets a treat
Miki getting a food reward - a rare instance where I do use food

For your dog to get the most complete picture of all, we want them to understand when they are doing things right AND when they are doing things wrong. We want them to care that they are doing things right, so we add rewards that the dog cares about, and we also want them to care that they are doing something wrong.


That is the role of the 'punisher' that you choose to use.


For me, my process is almost always positive-negative-positive. And I say almost always, because there are some occasions where the dog can surprise us with an unexpected behaviour that requires us to begin with a no, but in this instance, my process is then always negative-positive.


Never just negative. Negative, negative, negative. Not ever.




So, if you want to teach your dog clearly about right AND wrong, and if you care about them having a full and clear picture, make sure that you are not ignoring behaviours that you don’t want them to continue doing. Always time your negative marker with the behaviour and always add a consequence. Finally, get back to your praise the second that the negative is over and done with.


Don’t be full of hot air.

Don’t rant and rave at them.

Don’t hold a grudge.


Our aim is to open up the lines of communication, build our mutual relationship and enjoy life together. I want you to feel empowered to teach not dominate. And I want our dogs to enjoy a life where they have plenty of free will, but they choose to behave well without us having to micromanage them every step of the way.




Case Study: Miki the Toy Poodle


a poodle
Cheeky, playful Miki

Miki came to me as a foster dog with intense resource guarding and his aggression was so severe that he would undoubtedly have been euthanised if he had been in a pound or shelter.


He was unsafe.


His size did not save the surrendering family, who had all been bitten, including the young person in the home. His size only meant that their injuries were smaller than if he’d been a larger dog - and I've seen how quickly he can chomp a chicken neck, fingers are not so different. (Do not judge them until you have walked a mile in their shoes!)


Now, positive-only dog training would probably tell us that:

  • If I use corrections in Miki’s rehabilitation process his aggression would get worse

  • The punishments would need to be so severe that his life wouldn’t be worth living

  • That he needs a large dose of medication, or

  • That the behaviour isn’t rehabilitateable and it would be kinder to let him cross the rainbow bridge.


But that way of thinking is not for me.


My process with him has been and always will be, positive-negative-positive. Unless he started something out of the blue, then it was always negative-positive. I corrected him for his aggressive outbursts, his resource guarding, and his naughty or nasty behaviours. Every single time. Initially, it was a lot. But I always – always – got back to the positive with him and I never, ever held a grudge about what he’d just done. Even when he tried to bite me, and even when he succeeded.


Yes, that happened too.


Miki is – and will continue to be – a work in progress. But he’s safe now and so is everyone around him. I let my young nephews play with him. I take him to puppy preschool. I allow clients to interact with him. In fact, he now teaches alongside me regularly, helping other dogs and dog owners learn.


He is living proof that corrections do not cause aggression - in fact, he came out of a positive-only home with an established and active aggression. If used correctly, in conjunction with positive reinforcement and reward, they can and do work towards rehabilitation.


Miki now has a new leash on life.





About A New Leash on Life Dog Training


a lady with three dogs
Zander, Keryn, Jaffa & Miki

Because I use a balanced approach to dog training if you choose to train with me, we will be using positive reinforcement and rewards, but we will not be using food. I prefer not to rely on food because I don’t want to take food with me every place I ever go, I don’t want my dogs to learn to ignore me if I have no food or run out, and I don’t want to end up in a situation where I might still be of less importance to my dog, even with food, than the dog he's playing with or bird he’s chasing etc. Additionally, I do use the word no, and I do teach a consequence process for ignoring me or for an unacceptable behavioural choice, but without resorting to fear, intimidation, or pain.


So, for me, I train my dogs the way that I feel aligns with my belief system – rewards for listening and good behaviour but without food reliance – consequences without violence for inappropriate choices.


What do you believe in?


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