To Correct or Not
There’s many things that lead into whether or not I will correct a dog. Corrections, being the taboo topic that it is, have carried a pretty strong stigma. Also, there’s clarity that needs to be put into place. My idea of what constitutes a “correction” will differ from other trainers. So, in this blog post, I’m going to take you through what a correction is to me and when I apply them.
My Definition of Correction
I define a correction as anything that brings bad behaviour towards good behaviour. This leaves room for things like obedience commands to be seen as “corrections” in my approach. It’s not what we humans would consider punitive, but that’s not always the point.
If you view corrections like I do, it changes your views and opinions pretty quick. Think of it this way: let’s say for some reason you’re writing the old fashion way—pen to paper (or pencil to paper). When you make a mistake, you correct it. By that, I mean you erase it (or put white out over it), and then write in something new. This is how I view a correction. I don’t just mindlessly stab the paper but rather, make a wrong right again.
Let’s look at an example. A frequent way I’ll use obedience as a correction is using the recall command as an interruption of patterned behaviour. Let’s say your dog loves to get into garbages. After teaching the dog to recall on command really well with minimal distractions, I will use the garbage as something that pulls the dog’s attention away from me—a distraction. Once I see the thought enter the dog’s mind, I call the dog back to me. The dog might come back for a pet, some food or to remove the subtle leash pressure I had to use. He also might try again right away in which case I will simply call him back to me and away from the garbage again. You’d be surprised that after a few minutes of this, the dog will give it up and stop going for the garbage. The concept of interruption in behaviour modification is one that is rarely used because of the need to do it a few times over and over to get results. Many folks think change must be instantaneous. Keep in mind, learning doesn’t have to be visible to know it’s occurring.
This would be a great example of what I call an informative correction. An informative correction is a high frequency/low pressure correction. It occurs a lot and is pretty noninvasive. The above is a great example of how I might use an informative correction. For this to be effective, you have to keep your cool and remain happy when the dog attempts to be cooperative. To many folks get frustrated to fast when trying this approach because they want change right away (or at least the evidence that change is occurring). The problem becomes the small changes that are happening but aren’t being seen by someone not trained to see them.
Punitive corrections are the traditional corrections that are lower frequency/higher pressure corrections. These are designed for startle responses or shock and awe. These are also the ones that get pinned to a cross by many trainers who believe they are not necessary in dog training. I agree that they might be less necessary than both teaching and informative corrections, but to say that they are not necessary would be naive but that’s a different blog.
Side Note: Gary Wilkes is an incredibly respected trainer in his own right, though appears to have a little bit of a chip on his shoulders while doing this presentation. I want you to understand something important. This technique might have left this dog a little unsure, likely because jumping has worked really well for her in the past. I also want you to understand that give a few dozen repetitions of meeting new people that insecurity will go away as she learns to play the game. There will be instances that you simple don’t have the time to work consistently through a problem and this will be a viable solution. Any comments left that reflect the “unnecessary, inhumane or cruel nature” of punishments will be deleted right away. Healthy and respectful discussion is always welcomed, but maintain an open mind and understand if you believe that, there’s a circumstance you’ve not come against yet.
When I Correct—What Is Your Job?
Let’s be clear on one thing before we really get into this. If you don’t have any information or learning to fall back on, corrections will be relatively pointless.
Look at it like this:
I hire you to code my website. Now, assuming you have zero web design experience, it’s not really
fair for me to give you a task like coding my home page, leave the room and return 30 minutes to punish you for not doing your job. You didn’t know how to do your job. That’s on me, not you.
That being said, if I spend months training you on the coding languages you’ll need to understand and how to do your job well, it makes it reasonable for me to have some expectations of you. After months of training, if I give you the same task as above, leave for 30 minutes to come back and see you haven’t done a thing, this obviously has a few differences than the above example.
In scenario A, you didn’t know your job. In scenario B, you knew your job and made a conscious choice not to do it. Much different.
I also want to be clear here and say this: fear of punishment should not be your only reason for compliance either, but nor should your desire for reward—this rabbit hole itself can get fairly deep.
I coach my clients on seeing themselves first as a teacher (instead of leader) for this very reason. If you view yourself as a leader and you give your dog a command and he doesn’t listen, the first thought is often well, he’s trying to be defiant/dominant/stubborn. However, if you view your job as a teacher first and your dog doesn’t comply, you’ll likely think how can I make this clearer so he understands, or at the very least you might just assume he doesn’t understand.
The likelihood of your dog not complying with a command is equally likely to have something to do with his understanding as it is his motivation—it’s up to you what you focus on.
So our first goal is to teach our dog the job. Teach them their responsibilities and then if they don’t do it, be clearer and show them what these words mean. If they don’t sit, teach them again what sit means. If they don’t come, make sure you have a long line on them so you can reinforce it. The bottom line is not letting your dog get away with NOT complying, but also not approaching it from the perspective of “do it or else” or assuming your dog is an asshole.
When to Correct—Looking At Intention
After I’ve taught a command or behaviour to a dog, there’s something I must do to be far about corrections. I summarize it very simply: if the dog tries AT ALL to cooperate, I will help instead of correct. This means even in the face of distractions I will take my time and work the dog through resistance rather than punishing for confusion. This will obviously change over time, but I’m talking early stages of training. To clarify, if you’ve never had a period of time where your dog has responded well around distractions, you’re still in the early stages of training. Doesn’t matter if your dog is 5 months or 5 years, if you’ve never had a dog that does well in the fact of challenge then your dog is in “early training”.
My personal dogs, who have been training with me since I printed my business cards have some expectations on them at this point because of the time in we have. If Rocky doesn’t respond or only responds “half way” with a command, I might put a little more pressure on him. Honestly though, that didn’t start until about a year into his training. These days, I tell my clients I want 100 glaring examples of understanding before I ever start to increase the pressure on the dog. In some cases, this takes 1 month and in other cases it takes longer. Every dog’s personality and learning curve is different, just like their humans.
However, if I’ve seen many glaring examples of understanding and I’ve worked the dog through their big sticking points and distractions and even around distractions, this changes things a little bit. I now know you know your job but you’re choosing not to do it—that’s a bad choice.
Even in these instances, the dog’s personality and disposition has a lot to do with whether or not he gets a correction at all. He might just get the benefit of the doubt.
When In Doubt, Leave It Out
If you are wondering whether or not you should correct your dog for disobedience, you’ll never lose if you assume the dog is not sure or unclear on what is being asked. As Dick Russell once said, “don’t beat him up, just teach him again. Then, you’ll have a trained dog”.
This rule can differ a little with problem behaviours and like I’ve mentioned several times before, circumstances change all the time and the situation very much depends on the context. My choices are made on a dog-by-dog basis and not by a hard and fast rule of thumb.
If you wish to achieve at the highest level with your dog, consult a local professional in your area and see what your dog is capable of.
If you’re in the Kingston area, contact me for a free consultation.