What I’m struggling to say is this:


There have been some very important conversations about punishment this week in my blog reader. I’ve been trying to write an eloquent response, like Pamela and Lara did, but instead I’m flailing, struggling to say something that is further from the science and closer to the heart.

I have a dog who cannot be punished without long-term behavioral repercussions. Silas is a sweet, fragile guy, with an excellent memory. I am extremely careful to avoid even accidental punishments, like praising him too loudly.

That is, I spend considerable time, energy, and sometimes even money, making sure that the world is the least aversive it can possibly be for him. I do this because I want him to improve. I also do it because if his behavior deteriorates his life will be at risk.

Silas is obviously an extreme case, but I wouldn’t change my basic philosophy even for a different, more robust dog.

Because here’s what I’ve learned, from treating my sensitive dog as sympathetically and gently as I possibly can:


By “love,” I don’t mean affection. Lots of dogs adore people who treat them quite badly, and most of those same people feel quite warmly toward their dogs.

I mean the big, challenging, messy stuff. I mean feeling sad and happy, hopeless and excited, exhausted and exhilarated, on behalf of a creature who quite possibly has no idea what most of those feelings even are. I mean putting someone else first, finding that difficult, having to do it anyway, and coming out the other side into a joy like no other, and then doing it again, and again, and again.

It is a tremendous reward, with a tremendous price.

You cannot get to that kind love by a shortcut (like following the advice of well-intentioned bloggers), or by being “the boss,” or by “just doing what needs to be done,” or by “knowing what’s best.”

Not every soul has identical needs, which means that compassion doesn’t always look exactly the same. It is, however, the only path to real love.

11 thoughts on “What I’m struggling to say is this:

  1. Nicely said. I try to be patient with my dogs, mostly I’m super good with Sampson, but I admit, I lose it sometimes with Delilah, she can be a very taxing dog. Thankfully she’s not super sensitive to yelling. And mostly I do feel badly about yelling. Mostly.


    1. Nobody is perfect. I have been known to get pretty loud with Silas when he’s barking like he’s some kind of police protection dog (over nothing, of course). I try not to, but sometimes I just snap. Fortunately, when he’s in that state he doesn’t notice.


  2. I love this. As the momma of an overly friendly, very well behaved pup, and a scared, reactionary (super intelligent), previously abused pup I completely relate. We now live in an apartment community, and I feel badly that my instinctive response to barking is never what’s good for “the men” (as we lovingly refer to them) but rather what I think is socially appropriate in the eyes of the person they are barking at…. bad momma. I am working on it!

    I too spend a lot of time avoiding “obstacles” that will cause stress…. for the love of our pups!


  3. I almost started a fight at a friend’s house the other night because one of the other guests opened their mouth and pack and alpha nonsense started falling out. I said “No” in a particular tone, and maybe somebody kicked them under the table, because they stopped. But, aversives work better on humans than dogs 😉


    1. Oh, good grief, the alpha/pack nonsense. That one is tricky. I mean, for a lot of people it just imposes dumb rules that don’t hurt anything. Your dog really doesn’t care who goes out the door first or if you eat before he does. If you want those to be your house rules, whatever. Rigid hierarchical structures are just asking for trouble, though, no matter how imaginary they are, and that kind of thinking tends to be packaged up with all sorts of outright dangerous training tactics.


  4. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written. When the punishment or ‘pack leader’ conversation comes up, I try and use the wonderful words given to me by or amazing trainer – “well sure, you can have a combative relationship with your dog, but why would you want one?” Having to learn to appreciate my dogs for their unique view of the world taught me what it means to really LOVE another creature, whether they are capable of such reciprocating or not.


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