If you are housebreaking a puppy or dog, you’ve heard the age-old advice: “When he has an accident, just rub his nose in it!” Somehow that old chestnut has survived several revolutions in dog training, even though behaviorists and trainers have not recommended this method of discipline for many decades. However, it’s not helpful, and may even be damaging both physically and behaviorally.
Why People Rub Dogs’ Noses in Messes
Finding a mess on the carpet is an unpleasant experience for a dog or puppy owner. At the very least it means a messy cleanup, and it can result in carpet-cleaning expenses if the stain is severe. If others are present when the mess is discovered, the dog owner is subject to humiliation and feelings of guilt due to their dog’s undesirable behavior, and will usually be offered quite a lot of unwanted advice.
Punishing the guilty animal is satisfying to an angry owner, although they may feel guilty later for treating their pet roughly. Confirmation bias predisposes owners to see what they perceive as “guilt” in the expressions of dogs who’ve had accidents indoors, so it’s easy to delude oneself into thinking that a pet whose nose is rubbed in a mess understands what it did wrong and why it is being punished. These factors combined to make a totally ineffective remedy for housebreaking problems into one of the most persistent and pesky urban legends of dog training.
Why You Should Never Rub His Nose in It
Rubbing a dog’s nose in a mess is a useless training tactic and constitutes a form of abuse in my opinion, due to the permanent damage it can do to a dog’s sensitive nose. Dogs and humans do not perceive the link between past actions and current consequences in the same way.
Owner Thinks: “He’s made a mess in the kitchen, so I’ll scold him, show him what he did wrong, and rub his nose in it. That will be so unpleasant that the dog will realize he’s never permitted to make a mess in the house, and he’ll know that if he does it again, his nose will get rubbed in it again.”
Dog Thinks: “My owner is yelling at me and pointing to some waste on the ground. Now my sensitive nose is being rubbed in this mess. My olfactory passages burn painfully. Dog waste makes my owner yell and hurt my nose. Next time I see urine or feces, I’ll hide so my owner can’t find me to hurt me again.”
The same “guilty” response to having made a mess on the floor will be observed in most dogs even if another dog made the mess, dog poop was brought in from outdoors, or even if an owner or trainer puts plastic dog poop on the floor. Dogs don’t think back to the past and differentiate between their accidents and other messes. If dogs associate urine and feces with punishment, all they will learn is to be afraid of urine/feces + human owner, because that combination means they’ll be punished. This can lead to a dog who refuses to toilet on a leash even outdoors.
In short, rubbing a dog’s nose in a mess is counter-productive, delays housebreaking, and can cause fear, aggression, and damage to the olfactory passages. Doesn’t sound so good now, does it?