Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle

Punishment Perils (or “Why It’s Ironic that Reinforcement Works Really Well”)

I named my company “Ahimsa Dog Training” in 2003. You might think that name¬†looks silly.

In a way, you’re right. Ahimsa looks hard to pronounce, though it really isn’t (uh-him-suh), so that misdirects some referrals I might otherwise have. So why do I stick with it?

Ahimsa is a Buddhist and Hindu doctrine of non-violence to all other beings. I chose it for my business name because of what it means, and the fact that if I started training the¬†old-fashioned way, using violence and Alpha-rolling dominance, I’d have to change my business name. It helps me reflect on my methods and keeps me from sliding down the slippery slope of using force-based punishment with dogs.

‚ÄúBut why is it so important to not use violent methods to train dogs?‚ÄĚ you might ask. “Why shouldn’t I alpha roll my dog to show him I’m the boss?” ‚ÄúWe’ve been pushing dogs around for thousands of years!‚ÄĚ But there was also a point when hitting your child or wife or your slave was okay in Western society, too. We’ve done a fair job at eliminating direct violence to dogs – kicking them, for example, is no longer openly¬†accepted. Even Cesar Millan denies kicking and tries¬†to call it “tapping”¬†when he¬†kicks dogs¬†just behind their¬†ribs.

But¬†really, truly,¬†Cesar Millan¬†could actually be much worse, and he’s getting better, starting to use more modern tools. One of my biggest dreams is that he realizes that he could do even better if he applied himself to learning the new ways to work with tough behavior cases. So many dogs could have better lives if he were “man enough” to change. But change is hard.

But even though kicking is not super accepted any more, we humans have invented¬†ways to make force¬†easier and more socially acceptable¬†to apply. Having tools like electric shock collars (“e-collars”), choke chains, and prong collars do it for us distances us from the process, sanitizes it, and somehow makes that kind of violence okay. We must move past the idea that ventriloquial violence is acceptable, or we’ll never get to my ultimate goal — world peace.

‚ÄúWorld Peace!‚ÄĚ you exclaim, ‚ÄúGrisha, this is just dog training. Don‚Äôt you mean it‚Äôs better for the dogs if we don’t use violence?‚ÄĚ Yes, I love dogs, and I do not want our companions hurt or mistreated, but it’s not just about the dogs. Your choice of dog training methods helps form your world view and influences the way you interact with people.

For example, the success that we feel when our dog stops doing behavior X because of a shout or a leash correction puts us in the frame of mind that our aggression (and that’s what it is!) works, so we’re tempted to try it on our spouse, or our child, or the car ahead of us in traffic. Children who are successful in bullying one child are likely to repeat that behavior in the future in new situations. I imagine that result extends to treatment of dogs, as well. On the other hand, the patience and ingenuity used in dog-friendly training can spill into your regular life. Which would you prefer?

Those watching traditional dog training are also at risk. Social psychology experiments indicate that observing an act of violence can lead to performing a violent act. We are all at risk, but children watching an adult aggress are likely to do so as well.

In one experiment, Albert Bandura, Dorothea Ross, and Sheila Ross (1961) set up a situation where a Stanford nursery school child is calmly playing, when an adult that was playing with her gets up and begins bashing a blow-up doll with a toy mallet, shouting, “Knock him down,” ‚ÄúKick him,” etc. for several minutes. The child leaves and plays in another room with great toys. The experimenter then interrupts and tells the child that the toys in this room are to be saved for other children. Frustrated, the child goes to another room with the mallet, the blow-up doll, and several toys that can be played with non-aggressively. Children that hadn’t seen the adult outburst would simply play in the new room, without aggressive talk.

In contrast, many of the children that had seen the outburst began to pick up the mallet and hit the doll and talk aggressively. The adult outburst was the model of what was “normal” – it lowered their inhibitions and gave them a new aggressive ‘skill.’ Similar experiments were done with the aggressive adult no longer nearby or observing the child later, in a completely new setting. The same pattern of new aggression held true.

I would posit that practicing being aggressive to our dogs (shouting, hitting on the nose, jerking on a leash) would also give us new aggressive ‘skills’ to use out in the world, and lower our inhibitions about their use. Your children, or children watching you train your dog as they pass by on the street, are also forming this habit of aggression.

So why are we humans aggressive to our dogs?¬†One of the best ways to get a learner (dog or human)¬†to continue to offer behavior, even without a constant flow of reinforcers, is to pay out¬†on a variable schedule. That is, don’t reinforce¬†the behavior all the time, just some of the time — sometimes five treats, sometimes one, sometimes zero. So the dog becomes addicted to gambling, as in, “Maybe this time when I sit, I’ll get a cookie!”

When people¬†use aversives in training (i.e.,leash correction, shock, tap, bump, or shout at the dog), it sometimes works and sometimes does not. Sometimes it works very well, sometimes not at all, sometimes it even backfires completely and makes the dog worse, but you¬†don’t know that until later, when he bites out of the blue. Sound familiar?

It’s very addictive to train using aversives because the human is rewarded on a variable schedule. It’s ironic¬†that reinforcement works so¬†well to train people to punish dogs,¬†since it just gives more evidence as to why¬†reinforcement is our best bet with dogs.

That’s that slippery slope I mentioned when I talked about choosing Ahimsa for my business. Punishment is addictive to the person doing the punishment.

There are also negative consequences to the dog, of course. For one thing, it’s not a fun way to live life, expecting punishments for wrong moves. And if she is looking at another dog when she feels the jerk on her collar or hears your angry shout, she can begin to associate that negative feeling with other dogs. Then not only are you aggressive, but your dog is, too.

Even if you don’t like your dog, and don’t care about her state of mind, you should care about your own mind and the state of the world, because violence begets violence. The next time you start to jerk on the collar or shout at the dog, think about how that is one small step away from world peace. Take a deep breath and enjoy your dog with a calm mind.


Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575.

Grisha Stewart is the owner of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, Washington State, USA. She developed Behavior Adjustment Training and is the author of two popular dog training books and several videos.



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