Should We Use Corrections?
No No's in Dog Training.
There should be no - “NO” - when you’re training your dog. In
other words, corrections (No!) do not need to be present in good, effective dog training. Surprised? Let me explain.
There should be no - “NO” - when you’re training your dog.
In other words, corrections (No!) do not need to be present in good, effective dog training. Surprised? Let me explain.
The most commonly heard word at the dog homes I visit is “NO”. The most commonly heard set of words is “No”, “Off ”, “Down”, “Uh-uh”, “Enough”, “Quit”, “Stop”. Why? Because most people are invariably trying to stop something their dog is doing: jumping on me, barking, trying to grab my treat bag or trying to escape out the door.
These words aren’t cues that have been trained, they’re just words – words that humans have a tendency to use... and use... and over use.
At best the corrections are perceived as an interruption and may temporarily stop your dog from doing something. If you’re intimidating or have an easily intimidated dog, it might just work in the moment, but it’s not a good solution and it’s certainly not effective training. You have to keep on using corrections every time your dog does something you don’t like which means you have to keep on being intimidating. Most importantly, corrections do nothing to stop future occurrences of the behaviour.
At worst you risk creating an unintended association – “I hate visitors because I always get in trouble they ring the doorbell”. These types of associations canform easily and unintentionally and will always cause behaviour to get worse.
If you’re using corrections in this way, you’re damaging your relationship!
Sounds dramatic, but the reality is that dogs see things very simply – they are either “Safe” or “Unsafe”.
While your dog may respond correctly to well-practiced cues most of the time, how well is he willing to respond at times when he’s afraid or feels unsafe?
The response in these situations, I believe, is directly dependent on the relationship you have built with your dog. The kind of relationship you have directly relates to what your dog may be willing to do for you and how well you can train him to do the things you ask him to do.
So what are you supposed to do instead?
In positive training, it’s our goal to train proactively – to teach our dogs what we need them to know and use sensible boundaries while they’re learning. When you’re working with your average, friendly family dog, most undesirable behaviour is easily ignored or prevented during the training process. If it persists, it’s a simple matter to change your training plan and try a different tactic for that particular behaviour.
If you’re working with a fearful or aggressive dog, then avoiding corrections or any form of punishment is especially critical. With these dogs, you’re not just training them but you’re re-building confidence and repairing trust. In many cases, you’re completely rebuilding a relationship from scratch. Boundaries become particularly important here.
When you’re first learning something, it’s unfair to “correct” any attempts that might be the “wrong answer” – you’re still learning! Corrections at this stage will very likely de-motivate any learner.
Part of building any good relationship is learning to listen and have a 2-way communication system in place. It’s entirely possible that there will be times when someone will ask you to do something and you have a very good reason not to do it.
If you ask your dog to “Sit” to greet a stranger and he is afraid of people, he will be very worried about complying with his Cue and may choose not to Sit. What if that stranger tries to touch him?! He may also be reluctant to comply in the future as a result of your placing him in an unsafe situation previously.
That “Sit” he’s performing essentially traps him in astationary position – he can’t get away from that touch if he feels he needs to. He doesn’t need a correction, he needs support and recognition that he is uncomfortable and the Sit should become optional in that moment. Empowering your dog to respond by making a choice to Sit or not Sit in that situation – without correction – shows your dog that you are listening to him and being supportive. There’s no better way to bolster a healthy, cooperative relationship than that!
Let’s focus on your average friendly family dog.
I have a dog that I’ve raised with only positive methods. I have never consciously used a correction with him. I experimented one day with “uh-uh” to see what his response was – there was none – just a blank look. We’re only human, I know I’ve blurted out a “No!” in a moment of frustration, but I can honestly say that it’s never worked, and it certainly has never prevented another instance of that particular behaviour.
Let’s take a look at my list of my dog’s current unwanted behaviour and see what can be done without using corrections or punishment:
- Barking at the sound or sight of the neighbours next door; at the sound or sight of the neighbour’s dog next door; at the sight of the kids playing in the yard behind us (trampoline!); at squirrels (and chasing).
- Jumping up on (humping!) my back.
- Barking through the fence at a dog that is occasionally in the yard behind us.
- Chasing crows.
- Destroying his toys.
Part of the challenge of solving unwanted behaviour is managing them when you aren’t training. The other part of the challenge is determining whether training is enough or if behaviour modification also has to take place. If there is fear, stress, anxiety or aggression involved too, then just training behaviour to perform isn’t always enough. Sometimes you have to change the emotion behind behaviour first.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert to make this determination. If your dog is really good at responding to his cues, but your dog isn’t able to perform the cue you request in the moment, then there’s a good chance some fear/stress/anxiety is present. Behaviour modification then needs to take place as well.
Here is how I used my training to tackle these behaviour challenges.
(1) Barking at things he sees or hears in the yard.
This behaviour I would say has something to do with his breed and his high drive. By “high drive” I mean that he pretty much goes at all things full force – whether it’s obedience training, nosework or chasing something. He never does anything with half of his energy!
Because he’s a Doberman, he’s generally inclined to be somewhat “guardy” or suspicious of anything that he views as an intrusion. He loves having people over and has no issues at the front door beyond the initial bark to let us know there’s someone there. However, things happening in our backyard or the surrounding yards visible to us are an entirely different situation to him.
His outside barking behaviour tends to surface every spring/early summer when everyone, including Jack, tends to spend more time outside. Once we work on it for a few weeks, it lessens and eventually disappears. Over the 3 years we’ve had Jack, the behaviour has definitely gotten less intense over time so I’m hoping that one spring it just won’t happen – fingers crossed!
Training a Replacement for a “Correction”.
From the day we adopted him, I have worked on some very specific behaviours that I find extremely useful. The one I like the most – Stop! – is the one I use to work with this challenge. (I wrote an article on training this behaviour in the June-July 2017 issue.)
Basically, I have taken a common “Correction” or corrective word – Stop – and I have trained it to be a useful cue.
Jack is extremely good at performing his Stop cue. Stop means – stop what you’re doing and come back to me for a treat. In this case, if he’s outside on his own and begins barking we cue “Stop!” – loudly, so he can hear us over the barking – and he comes running to get his treat. If I think he’s going to continue barking, I may put him in the house and give him something else to do like a treat dispensing toy.
I don’t want bringing him into the house to seem like a “consequence” or a “time out”. I also don’t want him to continue barking when I don’t have time to train. I just want to redirect him onto a more acceptable activity.
If I have time to do a quick training session, I will stay outside with him and keep cueing “Stop!” every time he notices (glances at or cocks his ear towards) the person/child/squirrel ideally before he manages to get a bark out. Over a period of 5 or so minutes, he generally calms himself down performing his Stop and he can often remain outside on his own again for a while and successfully ignore the activity around him.
I don’t really think he’s afraid in any of these situations, I just think he’s objecting to an intrusion. However, because his Stop is a positively trained behaviour with a very generous history of reinforcement, he absolutely LOVES doing it. Because he loves doing it, I’m always building a positive association into whatever circumstance I use it in. Therefore using it will address any fear issues that may exist as well as give me a way to verbally get control over his behaviour. Win, win!
If I’m consistent and generous enough with my reinforcement, my hope is that with time and practice he will perform his Stop all by himself. In other words, if he sees someone in the yard behind us, he may bark once or twice, but he will turn and run back to me for his treat without a cue from me. I have seen this happen at times when I’m outside with him but it’s not consistent so not a solved problem just yet.
The concept of consequences or time outs – negative punishment – has been popular with some positive trainers and I have used them myself in the past. In this case the consequence would be temporarily removing something he likes: “freedom in the yard”, in an effort to stop future instances of the undesired behaviour: “barking at things he sees/hears around him”. However, it’s been my experience that they just don’t work well and they don’t address the concern of creating unintended negative associations. I no longer use them and instead seek out creative strategies to train and solve problems in a more positive way. So far, it’s been a lot more effective.
(2) Humping my back!
Jack only does this when we’re finishing up a walk, when we’re close to the end of a training class, or when we’ve finished our Nosework run. He will respond to an alternate cue so that I can get him off my back – but that doesn’t last long and it doesn’t prevent him from doing it in the future. He’s a large, 90-pound dog so it’s not a behaviour I can easily ignore and it needs to be addressed.
Because of the timing I think he’s tired, frustrated or overly excited so I choose to try and re-direct his energy onto toys. My thinking was if I tried to ask for an opposite behaviour like a stationary exercise - heel, sit, down, etc. – it would likely get worse. If he has some excess energy to expend, doing something stationary will not be enough and we will end up in conflict. I now carry a tug toy with me and start to engage him with it during these moments. I have also experimented with treat tosses in the grass or hand targeting and they will work but it isn’t always enough of an energy spender so they won’t work every time.
For the most part the behaviour has now stopped. Occasionally I’ll miss my chance and he will leap before I get my toy out (or I forget to bring my toy). Generally though the toy works. Lately he seems to be less and less interested in the toy but also less and less inclinedto perform the behaviour. Either he’s figured out how to manage his energy better, he knows I have an outlet when he needs one, or he’s just maturing and no longer needs to do this behaviour. I’ll never know but at least we’ve largely solved that one.
(3) Barking through the fence at a dog.
Fence “fighting” can be a challenging issue to solve, particular if you have an uncooperative neighbor. Thankfully, this particular dog seems to be one that the neighbours look after only on rare occasions. They do nothing to control the dog and aren’t overly friendly, so I haven’t bothered to seek cooperation from them.
Another thing I have worked hard on from day 1 with Jack is his Recall. So far, every time I’ve used it with the visiting dog, he has reliably come when called and I’ve made a point of being ridiculously generous with my reinforcement when he arrives at the back door.
(4) Chasing crows.
This can be a challenging one to solve because crows are pretty clever and will appear as soon as any training is going on in the hopes of scoring some treats. I often toss treats out or give bones to Jack in our yard, so crows are an inevitable part of that. If he chases one crow, then a second crow will steal his treats no doubt increasing his angst! In this case, I’ve taken more of a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach.
To help him, I’ve worked a lot in the yard while the crows are around by using his Stop cue to try and change his association from frustration with them to “crows equal roast beef”. Secondly, I make a point of tossing treats out for Jack when I see the crows gathering around and I know that he has also spotted them. I make sure to toss treats in 2 very separate locations so there is enough for him and enough for the crows so they don’t have to sharein very close proximity. This seems to have solved the problem and lessened any ill will Jack feels toward the crows. He will occasionally make a half-hearted lunge toward a crow edging a bit close to him and his pile of treats, but he doesn’t bark or pursue any further than that. If the crows are in the yard and no treats are out,he just ignores them now.
If the dog was often in that yard, I would have to do more training but so far, management is working just fine. Once I figure out the dog is there, he either stays inside or I go out with him and work on desensitizing him to the dog’s presence until he can ignore it for a while.
(5) Destroying his toys.
As soon as Jack turned about 6 months old, he began just completely dismantling every stuffed toy he got his paws on. Up to that point, he was happy to squeak them, play with them and toss them around without harm – then it all changed.
Before long, I quit buying him new stuffed toys because it was just getting too expensive and I didn’t want to have to keep on repairing the ones he had. However, that wasn’t an ideal solution either. He loves his stuffies and I really wanted him to be able to have them and enjoy them – so I had some training to do.
I didn’t want to simply just take away his toy when he started wrecking it, that was a consequence and I could easily see it turning into “secret destruction” or running away from me when he had a toy. If this started happening, I could see it potentially wrecking my carefully trained Recall or any other cue that caused him to happily come to me or stay in my presence.
Instead what I decided to do was be proactive as much as possible and use a positively trained cue to interrupt him - not to take away his toys, but rather to re-set him in an effort to hold off the destructive attempts.
Proactively, whenever he was playing with his toys I would praise him lavishly and shower him with frequent treats – causing him to take his mouth off his toy to eat his treat each time. I also started throwing in a cue – “Be Nice To... (fill in the name of the toy)”, followed by praise and treats.
I also kept his more expensive and plusher toys out of reach when I wasn’t present but kept the tougher and less interesting (to him) toys out all the time. I wanted it to seem like his toys were all out and available but keep the precious ones safe when I wasn’t around to work with him. If there were a seeming abundance of plush toys, maybe they wouldn’t appear to be quite as precious and trigger the desire for destruction.
Any time I saw any attempt at destruction that looked like it could go sideways quickly – getting hold of a body part and pulling, or starting to intensely chew at bits and pieces, I would use one of his positively trained cues that he’s really good at - Stop, Drop It, Hand Target, Recall.
All of those worked and I kept it random so it was never one cue in particular.
All of those cues resulted in him dropping his toy and coming to me for his treat. I was very generous with my treats and my praise and then he would be free to return to his toy if he wished. My hope was that this would re-set him so that when he returned to his toy, he wouldn’t immediately return to the destruction. In the early stages, I had to do this repeatedly as soon as he got a hold of his toy. I also had a few mishaps and had to repair a few toys – but the complete and instant destruction of a new toy seemed to gradually stop. It was working!
Before long, he seemed to be more into squeaking and running around with them, dropping them into my lap and happy to play chase and fetch (NOT tug!). The chewing and ripping efforts became very infrequent. Now, I simply cue him to “Be Nice To Hedgie” when I notice him grab a toy – but I don’t always notice and he doesn’t always get the cue. He has not destroyed a toy in over 10 months and he now has a lot of stuffies. As I’m writing this I can see 16 fully intact stuffed toys all around the room. I must say I’m very proud of that particular training success!
If you look closely at all my training and management strategies, nowhere do I mention corrections or punishment for any of Jack's unwanted behaviour. In fact, I go out of my way to try and set things up so Jack doesn’t feel he is being “punished”. I don’t use corrections because I don’t need to use them. I'm also always working to avoid creating any unintended negative associations or, most importantly, punishing Jack's attempt to communicate with me.
I do get impatient and frustrated just like everyone else, but I really dislike getting mad at my dog – it just feels wrong. The reality is that dogs simply don’t understand “No” the way we generally use it. Our use of “No” is just too vast and we want it to mean too many things. We have a tendency to be very confusing and very unclear when we are trying to stop things from happening.
I want to have a relationship with my dog that’s a partnership between the 2 of us. I want my dog to do something for me because I ask him to even if he thinksit might not be the best idea. In exchange, I give him as much information as I can and I’m as supportive of him as I can be so he feels safe trusting my decisions.
There are literally hundreds of things you don’t want your dog to do. It’s so much easier to teach them things you want them to do and develop simple training strategies for things that you don’t want to continue happening.
The result of my decision to avoid using corrections and consequences is that my dog is very easy to live, he’s very happy and he has some very well trained cues that give me a lot of control over his behaviour when I need it. He isn’t perfect and there are things we are still working on, but he's a very good dog and we both enjoy our time together! Please – keep it positive – truly positive. Give me a call, take a class, and learn how it can be done!