Let's talk about corrections in dog training

While working with a private client recently, we ran into another local Chicago trainer. It was interesting, because we were both teaching our clients the exact same lesson, using different philosophies. The goal was to have our dogs meet each other calmly. My client and I were walking a 2 year old wheaten terrier, and the other trainer and his client each had a dog that they were working with.

I used one of many strategies to get Misty to greet nicely. In this case, I asked her to watch me. Each time she watched me, she got to move a bit closer to the other dog. At a certain point I "lost her" and I moved her gently away and started again. So much of this strategy revolves around two things. Teaching a dog to pay attention and not be single-minded on the other dog and also through repetition teach her to "ask for permission" by checking in before greetings.

As we got closer to the other trainer and the two dogs, I noticed that each dog was wearing a choke chain. Anyone that knows me knows that I do not ever recommend using one of these "tools" for training. By definition, it adds pain to stop a behavior. This is called positive punishment. Often trainers will incorrectly label it negative reinforcement which is something different.

I heard the trainer tell his client that her dog should greet another dog on her terms and that she should "correct" him if he gets up from his sit too quickly. While I did not see her actually do this, this often means giving a pop with the leash to stop the dog's forward movement using the discomfort of the choke chain to help this happen.

On my way home I thought how unfortunate it was that while we were all teaching our dogs the same lesson, the word "correction" in the other trainer's case refers to adding discomfort or pain in the lesson. In my lessons, I "correct" a dog's actions by gently moving her away from her current location until she is able to focus on the task at hand and then continue the lesson.

The most troubling aspect of the word "correction" used in the physical sense is that it implies that there is a clear "right" and "wrong" and it is ok to punish dogs if they make the wrong decision. My strategy focuses on making sure that dogs understand what is expected of them and I encourage, motivate and reward the right decisions. If they make a "mistake" I don't hold it against them or decide that they are wrong.

I look at the whole picture including the current location, the age of the dog, the amount of training the dog has had and adjust my expectations from there.

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