Some of the most serious problems arise when a dog owner fails to provide structure, boundaries, and effective correction in a timely manner. Because dogs have evolved as opportunistic omnivores, they are naturally inclined toward goal-directed, purposeful, self-initiated behavior. And because of the way their brain functions, they do not have “right / wrong” or “good / bad” as we understand it; all they have is “works” and “doesn’t work.” That is, did the behavior get them something they want? If it did, then it works. Dogs are able to withstand a fair amount of discomfort to get what they want, and they can learn to withstand increasing levels of discomfort if the reward is there.
If a dog engages in an undesirable behavior that is self-rewarding (chasing, biting, stealing food) and the reward is worth the punishment, or if the dog is unable to associate the punishment with the behavior, then the behavior worked. It’s easy to see how an owner can start out trying to be “nice” or “gentle” and quickly become increasingly frustrated, with the severity of the reprimand increasing proportionally but never quite enough to make an impression. Unfortunately, what the dog is learning is that it can ignore the owner, and if it persists, it can get the reward. In fairly short order the dog will have developed a tremendous pain threshold and an equally strong will.
It’s much better to address the behavior decisively the first time.