Written by Tamsin De La Harpe
Medically approved by Cathy Piche BA, RVT, CCRP
Written by Tamsin De La Harpe
Medically approved by Cathy Piche BA, RVT, CCRP
The question of how to discipline dogs is an emotionally charged one. Whether it's how to discipline a puppy or whether to punish a dog for biting, pet parents often find the question upsetting. Even the world's leading experts can differ in their techniques and views on the matter.
However, the topic of disciplining one's canine companion doesn’t need to be controversial. A dog that lives a disciplined lifestyle can be far less prone to destructive behavior problems such as digging, excessive barking, or aggression. When a dog is disciplined appropriately, life is easier for everyone involved, and it allows for a better relationship between the owner and the dog.
But to tackle the issue of discipline, we first need to define what discipline and naughty behavior really are when it comes to a dog.
The first thing to understand about disciplining a dog is what canine discipline is and what it isn't. So with that in mind, let's have a closer look.
The most common misconception about disciplining a dog is that it needs to happen when your dog has done something wrong. It is often associated with dogs being hit or shocked by e-collars. However, whether it's punishment or negative reinforcement, discipline is not something to be whipped out the moment a dog does something "bad."
This is a reactive attitude, and it relies on the assumption that your dog knows what good behavior is at all times. Or that your dog can override their natural instincts under stress.
The truth is that very few dogs know how to behave at all times, so this is simply setting them up for failure. They’re doomed to cross boundaries they’re unaware of and often face punishments they can't understand.
Were you ever punished for something as a child when you didn't know what you did was wrong to begin with? Exactly.
Not only is this an ineffective way of dealing with problem behavior, but it can severely damage your relationship with your dog.
So if discipline is not about reacting when your pup does a no-no, then what is it? In short, discipline is a life-long commitment to training, socialization, exercise, and clear rules and boundaries. It is a daily practice and a set of habits.
There is never a need to be harsh or cruel when creating rules or boundaries, only that the rules and boundaries be clear, firm, and consistent.
For example, if you do not want your dog on the furniture, do not allow them on the couch some of the time but grow angry when it doesn't suit you.
If you find that you are inconsistently reinforcing your own rules, you need discipline, not your dog.
This means that proper discipline should be part of your dog's lifestyle. This includes every aspect of a dog's day, such as:
In other words, your dog needs to have firm guidelines for every event in their daily routine. As an owner, having and reinforcing consistent rules throughout the day, every day, is the true basis of discipline.
Over the years, positive training methods have become increasingly popular, for good reason. Consistent training is also a vital part of developing a disciplined dog. For instance, training your dog to go to their "place" or crate on command is a fantastic way to keep them from becoming overly enthusiastic with guests.
For more information on using positive reinforcement training with your dog, you can read our article here.
However, there needs to be more than just training when it comes to discipline. And this requires a deeper understanding of what drives your dog's behavior. For instance, are they barking and digging because of boredom and lack of exercise? Are they guarding their food or showing signs of separation anxiety? Trying to correct unwanted behavior without understanding the problem makes things worse.
To help your dog with separation anxiety, you can see our article here.
If your dog is guarding their food, you can see our article on the topic here.
Also, do you know what motivates your dog? Many owners who think of their dogs as stubborn and strong-willed often aren't aware of their dogs' main drives. Many dogs are motivated by food (called a food drive), but they can also have a:
If other drives are stronger than the food drive or the urge to please you, your dog is more likely to ignore treats and praise when it suits them. This means that dogs mainly motivated by a toy (play drive) often seem like they just don't listen when offered other incentives.
So, understanding your dog's unique genetics and psychology is key to shaping good behavior. This goes beyond simply training dogs to respond to commands.
Dogs cannot be naughty. Let's clear this up. To be naughty implies that dogs understand human concepts like right and wrong. They don't. Instead, they react according to many factors, ranging from genetics, impulses, prior experiences, training or lack of training, or just because the behavior was permissible in the past.
But the truth is, dogs are not born knowing it's wrong to chew your favorite pair of shoes. They also do not innately know how to handle the stress of strange situations, new people, or other dogs. Furthermore, digging holes or barking is natural behavior, even if it is unwanted.
For a well-behaved dog, proper discipline means a commitment to teaching your dog how to correctly behave in every situation and with all kinds of stressors. The focus is on habitually teaching and reinforcing the correct behavior rather than waiting to react to the incorrect behavior.
Understanding your dog's emotional life and how they perceive the world is key to creating a disciplined dog. Dogs that misbehave are not naughty. They simply do not have the tools to behave correctly when facing specific triggers. Discipline is the daily practice of teaching your dog these tools.
If a dog is "misbehaving" or doing something you don't want, you will need to correct the behavior. But the key to correcting bad behavior is both about timing and being effective.
If you catch your dog in the act, such as a puppy about to poop on the floor, you can give a sharp, firm "no." After that, your puppy should be taken outside immediately so you can show them what the correct behavior is. Remember, corrections must happen when your dog is doing something so that the correction can be paired with the action.
The correction also needs to be effective. If you find yourself repeating "no no no no no" or yanking on the choke chain over and over again to stop pulling on the leash, then the correction is not effective, and there is no discipline. This is always a sign that the owner's approach to discipline and communication needs a radical shift.
If what you are doing to stop the behavior is not working, stop doing it. Take a few steps back, identify the issue, and start a new game plan for addressing it. If it is a serious issue or you are at a loss for how to fix it, bring in an experienced professional to help you. In some cases, you may need to see more than one professional find somebody who can better improve communication between your dog and you.
Standard advice on the internet is to give a dog a time-out for bad behavior. This is an odd concept from a canine behavior point of view. There are three fundamental problems with time-outs. One is that the timing is usually off. So a dog may be put in a time-out some time after the action, meaning they have no reason to associate what they did with the time-out.
Secondly, dogs are not children. So they cannot employ cognitive skills to think about their actions during their time-outs. Finally, dogs are usually sent to their places, like crates. The crate is intended to be a safe, happy place for a dog. This can't be achieved if dogs are sent there as a punishment.
However, it can be helpful to refuse to interact with your dog for a bit if they are acting up for your attention. For example, a dog jumping on you can be ignored for a few minutes until they are calmer before you reward them with attention.
It's always important to never engage with an overexcited dog, even when you come home. Always wait for them to settle down. This reinforces polite behavior and calmness. A dog that can stay calm and relaxed is a disciplined dog.
Finally, for a disciplined dog, you must be able to build trust and communication. Often, what looks like a poorly behaved dog is simply a dog that does not trust or respect their owner and with whom they can't communicate.
This can take many forms. A common example is a puppy that does not come when called. This usually happens because the owner falls into the habit of repeatedly calling their dog without taking the time to properly train a recall. This is one way to teach your dog to ignore you.
Another reason this happens is that a dog that ran away once was punished when they finally did come back, so they mentally paired the action of going to their owner with punishment.
Therefore, to create a disciplined pup, your dog needs:
Dogs need to live disciplined lives for their own safety and well-being. Among other things, a disciplined dog is dog that:
As you can see, discipline does not imply a punished or maltreated dog. Rather it implies a dog that understands the rules of their environment and how to behave correctly.
So now that we understand the concept of discipline a bit better, how do we properly discipline a puppy and adult dog?
Disciplining a puppy is never about punishment. To be absolutely clear, discipline is not the same thing as punishment, which is especially true for puppies. Puppyhood is the ideal time to shape disciplined dogs. But to be effective, one needs a disciplined owner. The question is not how to discipline a puppy for bad behavior, but rather how to condition a puppy for good behavior.
So how do you properly discipline a puppy?
From the time your puppy comes home at 8 weeks, everyone in the household must agree on what your puppy should be allowed to do and what not. This list should be comprehensive. For example:
When your rules have been established, everyone must follow them religiously. If one household member allows a puppy on the couch, but the other doesn't, then the puppy is getting mixed messages.
Remember, what is cute as a puppy is usually not cute when they are adults either. For instance, if you do not want your adult Labrador jumping on you, never allow them to do it as puppies.
For a young puppy, stopping behavior like jumping up is as simple as turning your back on them until they stop and then praising them when they have all four feet on the ground. If you are consistent with this throughout puppyhood, you won't have discipline issues later in life.
Similarly, rewarding your puppy for walking correctly on the leash and never giving in to pulling while they are small will prevent pulling.
Starting in puppyhood, a disciplined dog usually has a fairly predictable routine. A day that clearly designates time for play, exercise, training, naps, and other activities (including going potty) helps correctly shape your puppy's behavior for adulthood.
Remember: discipline is a habit and a daily practice rather than a reaction to bad behavior.
As soon as it is safe to do so, make sure to take your puppy everywhere you can. This includes dog-friendly public places, puppy schools, parks, and even schools.
However, avoid flooding your puppy if they have a nervous disposition by forcing them into situations that make them uncomfortable. Also avoid potentially negative experiences such as hostile cats and bigger dogs.
However, puppies must become accustomed to as much of the world as possible as early as possible. These early experiences should also be positive, so being present with your puppy and attentive to the environment is essential.
Make short but frequent training sessions a part of your puppy's day. This should not always be at home or at puppy school, but instead practiced everywhere you go, such as in public places.
Make sure to integrate useful commands such as the recall and the place command. Instead of rushing at the door when the doorbell rings, teach your puppy to instead go to their "place" through place training.
Another helpful way to raise a disciplined puppy is to start early with impulse control exercises. The following video gives some valuable tips on this:
If you have a problem with a puppy that is biting you, make a habit of redirecting them to biting a toy instead. It's as simple as drawing their attention away by flapping a tug toy. Likewise, always find ways to channel unwanted behaviors into acceptable ones. So while all shoes should be out of reach, plenty of appropriate chew toys should always be available.
Punishing a puppy for a natural behavior such as chewing will only create anxiety. In some cases, it can foster a stubborn desire to ignore you or avoid you. But equally problematic is accidentally rewarding behavior you don't want.
Here is an example:
A young dog pulls on the leash while the owner is talking to a neighbor. Without thinking, the owner steps toward the puppy. The puppy yanks on the leash again and the owner thoughtlessly takes another step in the same direction. Although the owner may not have been conscious of it, each step they took that followed the young dog reinforced the action.
It is that easy to reward a puppy for pulling on the leash and creating a dog that pulls as an adult.
The best way to discipline a dog when they're an adult is to follow the same principles as you do in puppyhood outlined above, with some key additions:
Puppies should get most of their exercise from playtime. However, as soon as a dog is an able-bodied adult, structured and unstructured exercise becomes key. Structured exercise is the time doing a regulated activity such as jogging on the leash, and unstructured exercise involves "free" activity, such as playing fetch.
For any healthy adult dog, exercise is always the most critical key to reducing and even eliminating unwanted behaviors, especially those caused by frustration, boredom, or anxiety.
In fact, hyper attachment to an owner and a lack of exercise are the leading causes of separation anxiety.
*One way to decrease hyper attachment is through using place training to teach your dog that it's okay to be separate from you.
If the unwanted behavior is the result of a behavior problem such as anxiety, resource guarding, or dog aggression, then the underlying problems need to be addressed. In severe cases, this will require the presence of a professional.
It is critical to look for underlying issues. Punishing dogs who are acting out of fear, aggression, or a medical problem, will only make matters worse. But so can unwittingly encourage it by petting to "calm them down" or throwing treats to "distract them."
If there are situations in which your adult dog is out of control, the first step is to remove them from their triggers entirely. You cannot effectively communicate with a dog that is frantic.
The second step begins a steady program of training and rehabilitation where they are very gradually reintroduced to their triggers and desensitized.
Above all, the most important factor in disciplining a puppy or an adult dog is to be both patient and consistent. Discipline is never about punishment. In fact, if you have arrived at the point where you feel punishment is necessary, something has gone terribly wrong. Instead, disciplining a dog is about creating a set of habits and establishing rules and boundaries your dog can clearly understand.
Even the most strong-willed dog does not behave that way because they are "naughty" but rather because they live in a world where the rules are not clearly defined. Clear boundaries, lots of exercise, and occasional behavioral rehabilitation is enough to discipline any dog.