Canine Services International Dog Training Blog

Punishment vs Abuse = Philosophy vs Ideology


Presented for your consideration by Brad Griggs of Canine Services International:

One has to be clear about the distinction between punishment and abuse.

The author of this article about a recent study has employed copious amounts of pathos in the title, a classic component of rhetoric.  This is because the argument against any and all application of positive punishment in dog training is just that – an emotional argument.

This is why the internet is such a difficult place for those looking for dog training and dog behaviour advice to navigate – no matter where somebody turns it is almost impossible for them to find two references that state the same thing to be true.  At the heart of this issue lies dog training and behaviour world is so darn divided – the emotional argument versus the rational argument.

The Purely Positive (PP) / Force Free (FF) factions are engaged in a emotive argument, and then invoke the name of science to justify their position. On the other side of the great ethical divide is the cynopraxic dog training community who form their position by considering not only the very same science that the PP/FF community claim, but they also consider all the other science available which includes information which refutes the absolute position of the PP/FF community.

So let’s take a moment to summarise here:

Purely Positive (PP) / Force Free (FF) = Emotive argument
Cynopraxic = Rational, evidence based consideration of all available information

Moving on now:

People advocating Purely Positive (PP) / Force Free (FF) dog training are heavily invested in peddling an emotional argument.  This argument comes from the right place – they love dogs – but as with so many other morally absolute arguments in the dog training world, their outlook comprehensively fails to explain and/or understand what actually is.

There are a number of logical fallacies that must take place, accompanied by a complete suspension of critical thought, to claim that the application of any level of positive punishment in a dog training context is inherently abusive and/or that it’s application has a stand-alone causal relationship with aggression.

Cynopraxic dog trainers like myself, and businesses like Canine Services International, are interested in looking at a fact based argument that can form the basis for better praxis (practical application).   This allows a tremendous  and infinite flexibility in how we approach our craft.  This approach is driven by a robust philosophy.

“Cynopraxic training proceeds on the assumption that dogs and people possess a shared capacity to establish relations based on fair exchange. Such training promotes cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes conducive social competence, cooperation, and play. Cynopraxic training objectives are governed by two essential social and life experience criteria: (1) enhance the human-dog relationship and (2) improve the dog’s quality of life.”
– Steven R. Lindsay

 Victoria Stilwell is both the author of the article and the owner of the web site on which the article is posted.  Her business is heavily financially invested in the perpetuation of the misrepresentation of science.  Without acceptance of the PP/FF ideology by the uneducated masses the very premise upon which her business operates would be negated.  In her post she works very hard to perpetuate the fallacious notion that all punishment, any aversive, is abusive. The words punishment and abuse have very different dictionary definitions. Go ahead, look them up, I implore you.  You will quickly see that once again pathos is very deliberately employed as a tool of persuasion in order to  invoke an emotional response in the reader. The very title of the article is “Aggressive Training Breeds Aggressive Dogs“, which is a great illustration of the point being made, as even aggression and punishment have very different dictionary definitions.

Presumptions of PP/FF ideology

  • Positive Punishment/ Negative Reinforcement = Will cause some type of harm to the dog
  • Positive Punishment/ Negative Reinforcement = Never acceptable under any circumstance
  • Abuse = Unacceptable under any circumstance
  • Positive Punishment/ Negative Reinforcement = Abuse

Presumptions of Cynopraxic philosophy

  • Positive Punishment/ Negative Reinforcement = Can be applied without harm to the dog
  • Positive Punishment/ Negative Reinforcement = Acceptable under certain circumstances
  • Abuse = Unacceptable under any circumstance
  • Positive Punishment/ Negative Reinforcement ≠ Abuse

Never using a harsh word, a pop on the leash, a raised eyebrow to chastise your dog, encourage compliance or influence behaviour is out of touch with practical reality of owning, training, managing and living with a dog. As much as I would love it to be the case, the purely positive/force free dog training world is just a ideology, not a philosophy. What is the difference?

“There are very fundamental differences between philosophy and ideology. Ideology refers to a set of beliefs, doctrines that back a certain social institution or a particular organization. Philosophy refers to looking at life in a pragmatic manner and attempting to understand why life is as it is and the principles governing behind it.”

“On the other hand, ideology is usually based in theory, the precepts of which often have little or no connection to actual observations in the real world.  And, unlike philosophy, ideology generally defines a group identity or political agenda…An ideologue will seldom admit mistake.  Because their identity cannot be separated from their ideology, to admit mistake is to admit that they and their ideas are wrong, which means their understanding of reality is also wrong.”

I am not pro punishment, as you know all know too well by now. I am pro dog, pro option, pro science…and the whole science, not just the shiny cherry-picked popularised lie that is purely positive/force free dog training.

If the PP/FF ideologues claim that there is never a place for any punishment in dog training, then a reasonable person would have solid grounds upon which to question the motivation and qualification of the person making such a statement.  If we acknowledge that all dogs are created sui generis, then we also acknowledge that such blanket statements display a blatant disregard for this fact.

There is simply no room any more for these extremist views if we have success of the human-canine interaction as a core value in how we choose to train dogs and modify canine behaviour.  As Steven R. Lindsay, the most preeminent  dog training mind of our time puts it so eloquently:

“The aversive control of behavior plays an important role in dog training and behavior modification. In many training situations and applications, aversive techniques are not only necessary but sometimes even preferable to the various positive reinforce- ment procedures discussed in the previous chapter. Unfortunately, aversive training methods are often inadequately understood or applied in cases where positive methods would suffice.”


  1. Gerry

    Thank you for the clearest and most complete comparison on this that I have seen anywhere. It’s been over a decade since I started with the cynopraxic approach, and I often get dogs who have failed with those Purely Positive trainers. Teaching dogs, however, has been far easier than teaching those trainers.