Training an animal? An ethicist explains how and why your dog – but not your frog – can be punished

People talk to their pets every day: praise when they are good, reassurance when they are confused, and affection when they cuddle. We also speak to animals when they misbehave. “Why did you do that?” someone could ask their dog. Or we can scold the cat: “Don’t touch that!” – as we move a family heirloom around the room.

But is it ever appropriate to punish or scold an animal?

When people talk about “punishment,” it implies more than a loss of privilege. The term suggests that a person is asked to learn a lesson after breaking a rule that he can understand. But an animal’s understanding is different from a human’s, which raises questions about what lessons they can learn and what, if any, reprimands of animals are ethical.

These issues relate to what researchers know about the cognition of different animals. But they also go further by asking questions about what kind of moral status animals have and how people who interact with animals should train them.

As an ethical theorist, I have explored these and related questions, including with some of my colleagues in psychology and anthropology. I would argue that it is important to distinguish three types of learning: conditioning, instruction and teaching.


One type of learning, called “classical conditioning,” was popularized by psychologist Ivan Pavlov just after the turn of the century. By repeatedly ringing a bell while presenting food, Pavlov caused dogs to salivate just from the bell. Such learning comes merely from associating two types of stimuli: in this case, a sound and a snack.

When scientists talk about punishment, they normally mean “operant conditioning,” which was popularized soon after by psychologists Edward Thorndike and BF Skinner. In operant conditioning, positive or pleasant stimuli are used to reinforce desired behavior, and negative or painful stimuli are used to deter undesirable behavior. For example, we can give a dog a treat to reward him for obeying a sit command.

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However, the kind of learning that operant conditioning aims to achieve lacks a crucial ingredient of human punishment: responsibility. When people punish, it is not just to discourage unwanted behavior. They try to convey that someone has committed a wrongdoing – that the individual’s behavior deserves punishment.

But can non-human animals commit these violations? Do they ever deserve to be reprimanded? I would argue that this is the case, but with important differences from human misconduct.


Training for many animals, such as horses and dogs, goes beyond conditioning. It involves a more sophisticated form of learning: instruction.

An important way in which instruction differs from conditioning is that an instructor addresses his student. Pet owners and animal trainers speak to cats and dogs, and although these animals have no grammatical knowledge, they can understand what many human words refer to. Caregivers also often listen to their animals’ sounds in an attempt to understand their meaning.

Sure, humans condition cats and dogs — consider spraying a cat with water when it nibbles on a houseplant. The goal is for the cat to associate a forbidden snack with an unpleasant experience, and thus leave the plant alone.

But training pets can go beyond changing their behavior. It may aim to improve animals’ ability to reason about what to do: for example, a trainer teaches a dog how to complete an agility course, or how to get through a new pet door. Instruction involves understanding, while learning based on mere conditioning does not.

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An animal’s ability to be instructed arises from the nature of its mental life. Scientists don’t know exactly in which animals cognition involves understanding, real problem solving, and the ability to reason or draw conclusions.

But research into perception—how humans and other animals convert sensory information into mental representations of physical objects—has helped philosophers and psychologists distinguish thinking from more basic mental capacities such as seeing and hearing.

It is extremely likely that some non-human animals – including dolphins, monkeys and elephants – do think, as philosopher Gary Varner argued in the 2012 book ‘Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition’. My research shows that the distinction between thinking and non-thinking animals fits well with the distinction between animals that can be instructed and animals that can at most be conditioned.

This difference is crucial to how different pets should be treated. An owner should obviously care for their pet frog and take care of its needs. But they don’t have to recognize the frog in the same way as a dog: by speaking to it, listening to it and comforting it.

While an owner can reprimand the dog to hold him accountable for his actions, he must also hold himself accountable to the animal, including by considering how the pet interpreted events.


Some non-human animals have shown impressive cognitive skills in experimental settings, such as recognizing their bodies in mirrors and remembering past experiences. For example, some birds are sensitive to details about food they have stored, such as its perishability and how long ago it was stored.

Yet scientists do not have strong evidence that animals have critical thinking skills or self-esteem, the key requirements for true education. Unlike conditioning and instruction, the purpose of education is to enable a learner to explain the world, evaluate and discuss the rationale for decisions. It also prepares people to ask – and try to answer – ethical questions such as: “How should I live” and “Was that action justified?”

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A cat or dog cannot ask these questions. A lot of the time people don’t think about these questions – but they can. In fact, caregivers pay a lot of attention to these issues during parenting, for example when they ask children: “How would you feel if someone did that to you” or “Are you really okay with acting like that?”

Assuming that animals do not reflect and criticize, and are therefore incapable of education, I would say that they have no moral obligations. It is fair to say that a pet has committed an offense because animals such as dogs and cats can come to understand how to behave better. But morally, an animal cannot commit wrongdoing because it has no conscience: it can understand some of its behavior, but not its own mind.

In my opinion, addressing an animal and acting with an understanding of how it interprets events is central to the ethical training of pets. But if someone treats an animal as if it were responsible for justifying itself to us, as if it could apologize and apologize, he anthropomorphizes the animal and asks too much of it. Pet owners often do this in a mocking manner, saying things like, “Now you know you shouldn’t have done that” – the same phrases they might use with a child.

Unlike a child, however, the animal’s transgression is not an inability to fulfill a moral obligation. In human relationships we strive for relationships of mutual justification, in which reasons are exchanged and excuses and excuses are evaluated. But that’s not the nature of our relationship with our pets – no matter how inclined we might be to think otherwise.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization providing facts and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It was written by: Jon Garthoff, University of Tennessee.

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Jon Garthoff does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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