Oh, Cesar, it’s due to your aggressive techniques and dominance-based methods that we’ve come to require such explicit recommendations on punishment in pets. But “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milian is not the only target of this edict issued by The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB).

Titled, Position Statement and Guidelines on the Use of Punishment for Dealing with Behavior Problems in Animals, this is a broad group of recommendations aimed at anyone who might choose to slap a pup gently with a rolled up newspaper after messing his crate or owners who would yank on choke chains correctively when dogs interact adversely in the park.

It’s not that these approaches are always wrong, it’s that modifying behavior in animals is so fraught with the peril of unintended (even opposite) consequences that undertaking them requires very specific attention to details most owners don’t consider.

While this position statement is aimed at vets who make behavior modification recommendations in clinical settings, its language is clear, non-clinical and accessible to all who choose to read it on their website. I urge everyone with a pet to read and internalize these guidelines. They promote cautious methods and common sense, both sorely lacking in high-profile training techniques the US public is increasingly ingesting as doggie-dogma. 

The primary idea promoted here is that punishment can do harm. And the Hippocratic “above all do no harm” is a worthy principle laypersons would also do well to adopt when interacting with animals in training and behavior modification settings.

We’ve all seen dogs punished inconsistently without a clear causal relationship between the behavior and the punishment and correction applied too harshly or only when the punisher is angry.

Consider the frightened dog who receives a punishment whenever she’s exposed to a fearful situation and acts aggressively. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that she’s getting more fearful whenever her stress is reinforced with choke-chain whiplash.

How about classic situation where the pup is scolded for messing on the rug an undetermined amount of time after he’s done it? It’s far too confusing for any creature to properly understand cause and effect when the behavior and the punishment are so divorced from one another, timewise. This just makes him more scared of you and keeps him from achieving that special bond you desperately long for.

That’s why positive reinforcement and avoiding trigger situations is the mainstay of these recommendations. Unless owners have proven they can consistently reward good behavior and gain benefits from this approach, under these new guidelines, vets are warned against recommending potentially frightening rebukes and corporal punishment at any level of severity.

Furthermore, noting a dog’s reaction to negative conditioning is essential to any vet recommending punishment once an owner has shown that they can handle positive reinforcement. A dog’s sensitivity level must be gauged to determine what the best form of punishment a dog might best respond to. Too harsh and your relationship and his psyche might be imperiled.

While you might disagree with some of these recommendations, specifically the sections that sound vaguely patronizing towards pet owners, please remember that most people are way clueless when it comes to training their pets—and to a certain extent I include myself here.

Though I know what should be done, I don’t always manage it consistently. It’s for that reason that punishment doesn’t suit me—indeed, most owners—as a form of behavior modification. Avoidance of triggers and positive reinforcement fit me far better both as a parent and pet owner. Knowing this about oneself is half the battle, I think. It gets back to: “Above all do no harm.”

Kudos to the AVSAB folks for submitting their recommendations for public consumption. After all, it’s not just Cesar who should take a lesson from these more gentle behavior techniques. We could all benefit from the reminder that the creatures in our midst are sensitive and can be harmed by our often domineering human ways.

Image: scared of the camera! by Peter Guthrie