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Should I punish my dog after he misbehaves?

Q: When Dobby, my roommate's family dog, visits us, he sometimes gets into the trash. My roommate says scolding him after I find trash on the floor is not effective. Is this true?

Yesterday, I found Dobby knee-deep in trash on the kitchen floor. Even though I didn't yell, Dobby rolled over and showed his belly, so I'm sure he knew what he'd done was wrong. How do we deal with this problem?

A: Your roommate is correct. Scolding Dobby after he's raided the trash only confuses him—he has no idea why this crazy human is yelling at him—and that makes him fear you.

I suspect Dobby rolled over in submission not because he knew what he'd done was wrong but because your eyes widened and your body stiffened, and he's learned that such behavior is followed by punishment.

To stop Dobby's unwanted behavior, catch him as he's starting to investigate or dig into the trash. Immediately distract him by tossing a toy across the room or taking him outdoors. Better yet, prevent Dobby from getting into the trash by blocking his access to it:

  • Store your trash can in a cabinet.
  • Add a childproof closure to the cabinet door.
  • Place the trash in the pantry and keep the door shut.
  • If the trash bin must be in the room, choose a design with a dog-proof lid, perhaps one with a latch.

That way, Dobby can resume being a good little house elf—er, dog—who is praised for his good manners.

Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

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