Do positive trainers ever use corrections? This is a question I’m frequently asked as a trainer who likes to use positive methods when training dogs.
Aren’t corrections and consequences a normal part of learning?
While corrections and consequences are a normal part of learning, they don’t need to be painful, scary or intimidating to be effective. Years ago, as the Canine Assistants After Care Coordinator, I received a call from a client whose dog “wouldn’t respond” to him. Unbeknownst to us, after the dog was placed, the client decided to “retrain” his service dog using a prong collar and leash corrections. While the dog was responsive when on leash and attached to the wheelchair, when the client fell out of his wheelchair one day while his dog was off-leash, the dog ran off and refused to assist him. (This is when I got the phone call for help.) The use of aversives can seriously affect your relationship with your dog.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has published a position statement on the use of punishment for behavior modification in animals. The AVSAB position is that “punishment (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include, but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals. Click here to read the entire position statement.
So, how do positive trainers teach their dogs what they want – and what they don’t want? Sometimes our dogs don't do what we want simply because they don't understand us. In order to improve communication, we need to clearly indicate when the dog is doing the right thing and when he needs to try something else.
Most positive trainers use reward markers to communicate with their dogs.
A reward marker is a sound that tells the dog that what he was doing at the exact moment will earn him a reward. It is the bridge between the instant the dog performs the behavior and the moment a reward is received. Some trainers use a clicker (small tin noisemaker), while other trainers use a verbal “YES”. I prefer to use a verbal “YES” because it’s something I always have with me (my voice) when a training opportunity arises.
When your dog is doing something you don’t want, many trainers simply IGNORE the behavior. Dogs learn what behaviors result in reinforcement and what behaviors don’t. If your dog is jumping up on visitors, and the visitors turn away and ignore the dog, the dog will learn very quickly that sitting nicely instead results in getting attention and getting petted.
NO REWARD MARKER
Some trainers like using what is called a (verbal) no reward marker. A no reward marker isn’t a correction – it simply lets your dog know that he needs to try something else in order to get the reward. For soft dogs, you might just want to try something like an “OOPS” or “UH-OH”. For dogs with a medium temperament, a firm “NO” might do the trick. For strong-willed dogs, a sharp sound like AH-AH-AH (duck noise) might work best.
But this is the key – it isn’t enough to simply tell your dog what you DON’T want him to do (by using a no reward marker). The no reward marker simply tells your dog – STOP – you’re doing something I don’t like. What you need to do next is let your dog know what you DO want him to do. Dogs aren’t mind readers, and it’s up to us to teach them what is appropriate and what isn’t. If your dog is getting ready to jump up on the table during dinnertime, using the AH-AH-AH duck noise will stop the behavior, but then asking your dog to DOWN teaches your dog what is expected of him while the family is at the dinner table eating.
REDIRECT, DON’T CORRECT
One of the “mantras” positive dog trainers like to use is – REDIRECT, DON’T CORRECT. Most of us have made the mistake of verbally correcting our dog, but then not letting him know what we want! It would be like getting into a taxi cab and telling the driver – “no, don’t turn here, no, don’t go straight, no, I don’t want to go here either”. The taxi cab driver would probably get frustrated and ask you to get out of the cab!
The same thing applies to our dogs – telling our dog NO, and then not telling him what we want, is confusing and frustrating for our dog. It is very easy to redirect your dog from an undesirable behavior to a desirable one.
There are many ways to “redirect” your dog. My favorite “redirecting” cue is the sit cue. If your dog is sitting, it is very difficult for him to get into trouble.
For example, if your dog is about to jump up on a visitor, use a no reward marker to get his attention (AH-AH-AH, the duck noise), and when your dog looks at you, redirect his behavior by asking him to sit instead.
IF YOUR DOG IS SITTING, HE CAN’T:
• Jump up on visitors
• Greet your visitors by nosing them in an inappropriate area
• Do embarrassing things on people’s legs
• Dart through the front door when the door is opened
• Roll in “dead things”
• Chase a possum, squirrel, rabbit, deer, etc.
• Jump up on the kitchen counter or table to steal food
• Lunge towards other walkers or dogs on the trail
• Get underfoot while you are moving furniture, carrying groceries, etc.
• Make it impossible to attach his leash to his collar
• Jump up on the furniture
• Dart out of the kennel or car when the door is opened
• Run away when it’s bath or pill time
• Lick dirty dishes in the dishwasher
• Bite peoples ankles as they are walking
• Knock the food bowl out of your hands before you can set it down
This list was compiled from a homework assignment given to Luvk9s students.