I introduce corrections into my training sessions at a certain point in training. At which point I do this depends on the dog, but first of all, I will address the question ‘why’ I do this because the subject of punishment can cause some quite strong feelings on both sides.
In my article on the ‘use of aversives in dog training,’ I explained that I use the term ‘correction’ for an aversive, which enables you to diminish unwanted behavior without distressing the dog or being harsh.
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If you have been following my article on training the sit, you will see that it is possible to get quite a long way in training without correcting a dog. In fact, some trainers teach very advanced skills to animals without ever correcting them. This is called positive-only training. Positive-only is not simply reward-based training, nor is it training that avoids rough punishment; it is training that avoids coercing or correcting the dog in any way.
So why would I want to correct my dogs if it is possible to train them without doing so?
A disadvantage of positive-only training
Some dog trainers strongly believe a dog should never be coerced into anything. They believe all dogs should be trained using a ‘positive-only’ training system. I am not one of them.
Positive-only training is a brilliant way to improve your training skills, establish new skills in a controlled environment, and teach young and sensitive dogs. But it has a disadvantage. It relies on ‘extinction’ to diminish unwanted behaviors.
What is extinction?
Behaviors that persistently result in no consequence (no change in environment) for the dog will eventually die out. You can find out why in ‘A Game of Consequences.’ This process is called extinction.
What is wrong with relying on extinction?
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with relying on extinction. But as training advances and you move into more challenging environments, controlling every consequence of your dog’s behavior becomes more difficult. Achieving the abolition of unwanted behaviors through ‘extinction’ becomes increasingly complicated.
Therefore, when unwanted behaviors arise, I believe taking action to diminish that behavior is a good idea. For example, if I have taught my dog to sit still at home, and a squirrel runs past him the first time I ask him to sit in a field, I will correct any attempt to follow the squirrel. While it was my fault that I put the dog in a difficult situation, the logistics of breaking a squirrel-chasing habit are just too high a price to pay for avoiding a correction.
At the other end of the spectrum, some dog trainers are convinced dogs cannot be trained without punishment or intimidation despite the abundant evidence.
The vast majority of trainers nowadays fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
Should most people use corrections with their dogs?
That is a question I cannot answer. Only you, the dog’s owner, can decide whether or not you want to correct your dog. Or if you would instead train without any coercion at all. It is a very personal decision. If you decide never to correct your dog, you may require more time to reach the same objectives as someone who uses the occasional appropriate correction. And that is your choice.
A well-loved and happy dog does not come to any harm whatsoever from the occasional rational rebuke.
If I do correct my dog, how should I go about it?
My definition of a ‘correction’ is a punishment that does not distress the dog and would not be considered unduly harsh by most reasonable people. All dog owners should be using the minimal correction possible for their dog, not only because they have a duty of proper care towards him but because kindness fosters a mutually beneficial relationship between a dog and its owner.
For many dogs primarily trained through positive-only methods, a gruff verbal ‘growl’ will be sufficient to chastise them. In many cases, the only physical coercion you will need will be to restrain the dog using a long line or training lead. This simply prevents him from getting into mischief and allows you to continue to train in the presence of distractions. Sometimes, physically reseating a dog in a position he has left without permission may be appropriate.
There is no need for displays of dominance, aggression, alpha rolls, electricity, or physical violence.
The timing of a correction is just as crucial as the timing of a reward, and you must ensure that any correction is applied immediately when your dog misbehaves.
When should I introduce corrections?
Corrections are inappropriate for small puppies or nervous, aggressive, or sensitive dogs. When you have a well-balanced dog that is confident and beginning to become more independent, and when you are in situations where it is difficult to control the consequences of his actions without using corrections, that is the time to consider their use.
Why are there no corrections in the Train Your Dog to Sit series?
Introducing corrections into an exercise designed for positive-only trainers is a relatively simple matter. Where the ‘positive-only’ trainer would ignore a mistake and back up to an easier task for the dog, another trainer may correct the dog with a verbal rebuke and then re-attempt the exercise at the same level.
Using corrections avoids a certain amount of backtracking and can speed up training, which in some circumstances may well be to the overall benefit of the dog.
It is a very different matter to take corrections ‘out’ of a traditional exercise designed for trainers that use corrections as a matter of course. A great deal more explanation would be needed. I, therefore, created the ‘Train your dog to sit’ series so that it is effectively a positive-only system, and other trainers can add corrections later if they wish.
It’s up to you
Do remember that it is up to you. If you do not want to correct your dog, don’t let anyone persuade you to do so against your better judgment. Take your time, break down each skill into minor components, and you will get there.
How about you? Are you a positive-only trainer? Do you think the use of corrections is ever appropriate in dog training?