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Using corrections to train your dog

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At a certain point in training,  I introduce corrections into my training sessions.   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 behaviour without distressing the dog or being harsh.  


Positive-only training


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 at all.  In fact,  there are trainers who 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 at all.


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


There are some dog trainers who feel very strongly that a dog should never be coerced into anything.  They believe that all dogs should be trained using a ‘positive-only’  system of training.    I am not one of them.   


I think positive-only training is a brilliant way to improve your training skills, to establish new skills in a very controlled environment,  and to teach young and sensitive dogs.    But it has a disadvantage.   It relies on  ‘extinction’  to diminish unwanted behaviours.


What is extinction?


Behaviours 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 as you move into more challenging environments it becomes more difficult to control every consequence of your dog’s behaviour.    Achieving the abolition of unwanted behaviours through ‘extinction’  becomes increasingly complicated.


Therefore when unwanted behaviours arise,  I believe taking action to diminish that behaviour 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.   Whilst 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 there are still some dog trainers that are convinced dogs cannot be trained without punishment or intimidation, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.


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 rather 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 that uses the occasional appropriate correction.   And that is your choice.


I do not personally believe a well loved and happy dog comes 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 his owner.  


For many dogs that have been primarily trained through positive-only methods,  a gruff verbal ‘growl’   will be sufficient to chastise them.   In many cases the only physical form of 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 make sure that any correction is applied immediately your dog misbehaves.


When should I introduce corrections?


Corrections are not appropriate for small puppies,  or for nervous, aggressive, or very 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 for you to control the consequences of his actions without the use of corrections,  then that is the time to consider their use.  


Why are there no corrections in the Train your dog to sit  series?


It is a relatively simple matter to introduce corrections into an exercise that has been designed for positive-only trainers.  Where the ‘positive-only’ trainer would ignore a mistake, and back up to an easier task for the dog,  another trainer may chose to correct the dog with a verbal rebuke  and then re-attempt the exercise at the same level again.


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 which has been designed for trainers that use corrections as a matter of course.   A great deal more explanation  would be needed.    I therefore designed the ‘Train your dog to sit’ series  so that it is effectively a positive-only system,   and  other trainers can add in corrections at a later stage if they wish.   


Its 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 judgement.  Take your time,  break down each skill into its smallest 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?

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