Horse Behavior: War on Punishment

Question from a reader:

I see the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has posted a statement from their American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) about the use of punishment for behavior problems in animals. The statement talks about dogs and seems like the behavior veterinarians were prompted to do this because of the TV dog trainer show this winter that featured a dog that belonged to a vet student. The dog violently attacked vehicle tires. The fix that the "expert" recommended was to use a shock collar to punish the behavior. Apparently there has been some follow-up discussion/rumors indicating that it didn't really work as well as depicted in the show. But it left people with the impression that this is a veterinary-sanctioned approach to problem behaviors.

Does this statement about punishment apply to horses? As I read it through, I could think of so many examples of horses that got messed up by people trying to punish them for simple things that could have been ignored to extinction or counter-conditioned. Most of those statements about punishment make a lot of sense to me as a horse person with a psychology background. Not many horse people would go as far as using a shock collar, because that might sound brutal. Yet they'll yell and scream and shank or kick a horse, even long after the situation is over and the horse can put two and two together. What do you think? Especially with young horses, it just seems to ring so true. Here's the Web site address for the AVMA news release about the position statement:  


Thank you for the question and for sharing your opinion. Yes, I could not agree more with you, and with the AVSAB statement. Most trained and certified behavior specialists who work specifically with horses know that, just as with any species, reinforcement of desirable behavior is far more effective than punishment of undesirable behavior for almost any behavior problem you can think of. The horse specialists I know also judge punishment of any type that doesn't actually interrupt the undesirable behavior at the time it is occurring to be ineffective and actually counter-productive. The one-second rule might be more like one-tenth of a second at most in domestic horses. Otherwise the horse becomes confused and defensively aggressive. Delayed punishment just trains some horses to be extremely afraid of that person or of people in general coming out of nowhere and acting crazy or aggressive. Others just get used to it, and so the punishment has to escalate even to get the horse's attention. And young horses and stallions often misread our punishment as play initiation.

Thank you again, and I'll ask The Horse staff if they can reprint those statements for everyone to read and, perhaps, folks can comment back.

Veterinary behavior society announces position on punishment

In response to the popularity of television shows such as "The Dog Whisperer," the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued a position statement and guidelines on the use of punishment for dealing with behavior problems in animals.

The guidelines clarify that while punishment can be effective in specific contexts, it also has an association with many adverse effects.

"A major problem with using punishment is that it suppresses behavior temporarily but does not necessarily modify the underlying cause of the behavior," said Dr. John Ciribassi, AVSAB president.

Also, punishment may interfere with the human-animal bond. Owners tend to punish pets inconsistently and as a consequence of anger, so punishment may occur long after the bad behavior and may be intense. Dr. Ciribassi said, "We can have a problem with the pet not trusting the owner because it is unable to consistently anticipate what the owner is going to do in any given situation."

The pitfalls and possible adverse effects of punishment include the following:

  • Timing punishment correctly is difficult.
  • Punishment can strengthen the undesirable behavior.
  • The punishment must be strong enough to be effective, but intense punishment can lead to physical harm.
  • Regardless of the strength, punishment can cause some animals to become extremely fearful, and this fear can generalize to other contexts.
  • Punishment can facilitate or even cause aggressive behavior.
  • Punishment can suppress behaviors, including those behaviors that warn of aggression.
  • Punishment can teach the animal to associate the owners, other animals, specific contexts, or environments with bad experiences.
  • Punishment often does not address the underlying cause of behaviors or teach alternate behaviors.

The AVSAB's position is that punishment is not appropriate as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. Modification should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors, removing reinforcement for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving undesirable behavior.

The AVSAB position statement and guidelines are available at

The PDF is available from

AVSAB Position Statement

The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals

AVSAB's position is that punishment1 (e.g., choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include, but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.2

AVSAB recommends that training should focus on reinforcing desired behaviors, removing the reinforcer for inappropriate behaviors, and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions driving the undesirable behavior. This approach promotes a better understanding of the pet's behavior and better awareness of how humans may have inadvertently contributed to the development of the undesirable behavior. Punishment should only be used when the above approach has failed despite an adequate effort as part of a larger training or behavior modification program that incorporates reinforcement of appropriate behaviors and works to change the underlying cause of the problem behavior.

AVSAB recognizes that both positive reinforcement and punishment require significant skill, effort, and awareness on the owner's part. Both must be applied as the animal is performing the target behavior or within one second of the behavior to be most effective. Additionally, both work best when applied every time the behavior occurs so that the animal is not inadvertently rewarded for undesirable behavior during the modification process. If punishment is added to a modification plan, it should only be used if the owner has first demonstrated reasonable ability and consistency at rewarding appropriate behaviors and removing the reward for bad behavior. If punishment is suggested as part of a complete behavior modification plan, owners should not begin using it until they have ensured that the person helping them is able to articulate the major adverse effects of punishment, judge when these effects are occurring over the short term and long term, and can explain how they will reverse the adverse effects if they occur.

1 For the scientific definition of punishment refer to p. 3 of the aforementioned PDF

2 Refer to Adverse Effects of Punishment on p. 4 of the aforementioned PDF

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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