Corrections And Dog Training Tips

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Sam Basso
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Animal theology. Which are you? The dog says, “You feed me, shelter me, clean up my messes- you must be God.” The cat says, “You feed me, shelter me, clean up my messes- I must be God.” – Unknown Author

Those of you who know me and have trained with me know that I do not correct dogs out of emotion or anger. In fact, I TEACH ALL THE COMMANDS WITH FOOD TREATS, PRAISE, PETTING, TOYS, AND GUIDANCE before we start enforcing the commands with any kind of leash corrections or leadership techniques. I WANT TO MAKE SURE THE DOG LIKES THE WORK AND UNDERSTANDS WHAT I AM ASKING, before I assert my authority and require attention and obedience. I WANT A BALANCE, a desire to work, but at the same time a sense of duty and responsibility responsibility to obey. If I could, I would train all dogs with treats, praise, toys and attention and never correct or lead them at all. However, in the real world, there are times when a dog MUST obey, because if the dog refuses the command at the wrong time then the dog, someone else, another animal, and/or the handler are going to be harmed. Therefore, you have to play God to prevent disasters in the future. What you’ll find is if you do it right, you can have an obedient, happy and affectionate dog. You CANNOT have a well mannered, obedient dog without using corrections. Let me tell you how.

Corrections and leadership have become a highly controversial topics among people who work with animals. I have spent a lot of time examining and defining my position, and practices, on these issues. It should be 100% clear if you read my materials or talk with me that I am not a fanatic. The fanatic preaches things like human- animal mind reading: you can read their minds, you can visualize your dog will not run into the street and be hit by a car, and it won’t happen, and so forth. I do not subscribe to this kind of foolish, New Age philosophy. Or they have some fanatical ideas on what they consider humane and inhumane practices, ranging from so-called “all positive”, to “cruely free”, to “no touch” methods. Seriously, there are folks that teach that to even touch an animal in lessons harms the animal.

I used to wonder if these “all positive” trainers were getting any results. If you read their books, watch their videos, or read their web sites, you’ll see that they preach a philosophy that claims it is cruel to correct a dog. These kinds of trainers have made an entire industry out of this philosophy. They are making money from foolishness and a lie.

So, let’s delve a bit into what they do when dogs do disobey – and yes, dogs will defy commands… we all know that. First, you can’t believe everything you read. My dad taught me that when I was a kid. One well known trainer has several videotapes on how to use food. The videos are quite well made, and are very good for teaching the use of food for training. What is NOT disclosed, however, is that in the real world, this person is KNOWN for having a virtual torture chamber of devices at their school to force obedience. People who know this trainer know that person is lying. Second, almost all these trainers DO correct their dogs, using traditional methods. You have to read their materials very carefully to find that out, but it is true. They will go on and on, moralizing why it is inhumane to correct a dog, but these hypocrites then do use corrections. Third, you have to realize there is now a lot of money for people who promise that they have “NEW” or “SECRET” knowledge. They are using a marketing gimmick to get you to sign up for lessons, or to buy their training materials. Fourth, many of these so-called trainers use a wide variety of head and body harnesses to limit motion, kind of like a straightjacket. They use head collars and body harnesses as restraints to prevent from escape or running. A head collar (there are many brands and names for these devices) is just that: a harness. A head collar restrains the head, making the head turn left or right under leash tension, preventing pulling (or so the literature claims, however, I’ve seen dogs still pull, and many who just fight to get the silly thing off their faces). But, take the head collar off, and the dog will still run away if it isn’t trained to obey. The body harnesses they use restrict the full range of motion of the dog so it can’t run away when it is on. This isn’t training, it is restraining. I don’t want my dog in some (pardon my French) damned harness all its life! I want a dog that happily obeys OFF LEASH, not a dog that can’t refuse to obey because it is hog tied.

I have researched some of these “famous” all positive trainers. Funny thing, this is NEVER mentioned in the marketing materials of this type of trainer, they use electric collars, throwing objects, Alpha roll techniques, and use a variety of electronic sensing vibration and shock devices to control behavior and access to different parts of your home and yard. I remember watching a well known TV celebrity “all positive” trainer tossing objects (bean bags) at dogs to make them obey. Interesting that this stuff also isn’t mentioned at their web pages, in any of their training materials, or in their seminar advertising. Sure, they can and do use force, but they advertise it is inhumane for you to use corrections. “All positive?” No. These folks use a variety of promotional messages to attempt to make you feel guilty that you might be hurting your dog if you give your dog any leadership or any corrections using well known and proven traditional techniques. And who wants to hurt a dog? Not me! But, that’s the thing. I don’t hurt dogs. But, that is what is implied, and even promoted, by these “all positive” trainers. They will tell you all about their clickers and treats and all positive training (they call it “cruelty free” training, now isn’t that a charged phrase?!). But, behind the scenes, you will find many are hypocrites, using all manner of corrections. You just won’t find them stating that publicly.

So, let’s all be honest here. Besides using treats and toys (fetch and tug toys), I do correct dogs. And I have no problem with corrections (and that’s not the same as saying I hurt dogs, because correction doesn’t mean to hurt the dog) to prevent disobedience to a trained command. And let’s also state clearly that you won’t have an obedient dog, off leash, in the real world, unless you use corrections in your training. And you won’t compete and get high level scores in serious competition unless you use corrections in your training. That isn’t an excuse to harm or abuse your dog. But it is a reason why you must use corrections: so your dog doesn’t die one day if it gets loose from you in a dangerous situation.

Another point: these so-called “all positive” trainers don’t tell you that you have to have a dog that is highly food motivated in order for you to use mostly food, and that goes for clicker training, too. Clicker training is just another form of food training. So, the control you get is relative to the intensity of the desire for the food based reinforcement versus the intensity of the desire to do something else, and it is dependent upon how tractable and submissive your dog is, too. I have also seen MANY purely clicker trained dogs that have become aggressive biters; spoiled because they were allowed to choose whether to obey, and were never given proper pack leadership. Not all dogs, and not all breeds, are very food motivated, tractable or submissive. (Clickers are also an artificial device, and the conditioned reinforcer is never going to be as motivating as the primary reinforcer it is based upon.) And this is where the big lie is told to make these charlatans money. Again, I’m not against using food to train dogs. I use food with almost every dog during obedience training. But, to say that you can use all positives to get obedience out of a dog is a lie.

If there is not a rational and provable basis for a dog training method, then I will not use it. I will not let a dog be killed using these kinds of foolish approaches. I also have yet to see that you can train a dog to be obedient with purely positive reinforcement (treats, praise, toys and attention), because one day, even if you wag the tastiest piece of cheese in front of your dog’s face, it will still chase a squirrel into the street and still be hit by a car and die. Therefore, I would rather give a dog a leash correction than let the dog get a “bumper correction” by a car and be killed. Moreover, I do not subscribe to the approach that you should train dogs roughly. If dog training means putting dogs into the torture chamber, then I do not want to have anything to do with it. So, I’m somewhere in the middle, trying to train dogs with my head and heart, seeking to make the training crystal clear and fun for the dog and handler, but understanding that sometimes we have to give dogs corrections as a substitute for the alternative real world consequence.

This topic hit very close to home because at the time I started to write this article, I was beginning to apply corrections to my 8-month-old Doberman puppy. You have to understand that I did not want to do this. This was my pal. He went everywhere I did. He loved me, tormented me, slept on the bed with me, and played with me. In addition, I loved him, too. AND TRUTHFULLY, IT IS EASIER AND MORE COWARDLY TO NOT EXERCISE LEADERSHIP OR DOMINANCE with a dog or a person. It takes a decision of your willpower to assert yourself in any relationship in which you’ve become comfortable with the easy way of doing things. I knew at that point, I had to apply a clear direction and firm authority to make him do things that he would otherwise refuse to do if left to his own choices, because he’d also become comfortable with the situation of doing what he pleased without any demands. I do not like having to go through this moment of decision in the training. I can sympathize with you parents on this one. You love your kids, but sometimes you have to take a stand, be the bad guy, and punish them for things, because you realize that if you do not do it now, then the real world will dish out a much worse punishment later. You rightly tell yourself, if you can stop this anti-social behavior now, they will grow up to be good, mature adults. So, you immediately step up, as any parent must, and do what has to be done.

This became all too real while training my dog in public. At 8 months of age, he ran from me to go and visit another dog, and wouldn’t come back when called. It was right then and there that I knew I couldn’t postpone using corrections on him any longer, and that I had to finish out the training, for his welfare and the welfare of others. I had worked for months building his drive for prey (toys and tug), play, exploration, social contact and food for maximum, intense performance. Yet, he HAD TO obey, or I was going to lose him one day. So, the trade off was his life in exchange for some psychological discomfort and leadership from me. I can live with that trade off. If you can’t, then maybe you shouldn’t own a dog at all, because you are willing to put your feelings of affection, and your guilt over something that will never happen in a good dog training class, over the life of your dog, and you have to face the fact that selfish affection, on your part or the dogs part, isn’t the same thing as love.

I wish we could all live in B.F. Skinner’s utopian world of positive reinforcement. I really would like a world where you could do anything you wanted and there would be no negative consequences and no harm to any one else. For many of us, we have an idealized picture of what a dog is. We have learned much of what we know through story books, Disney videos, TV shows, and bedtime stories. However, unfortunately, real life just does not operate that way. In addition, this is why I differ with the clicker training folks, that preach all positive training. In fact, I remember a guy coming up to me and scolding me for using a leash and prong collar, while I was walking a tough and incorrigible guard dog through a crowded area. He told me that if I would just read “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “The Tellington Touch” books that I could throw away my collar and leash. Yeah right! Should I risk someone being attacked just to adhere to someone else’s utopian view of dog training? I can just imagine what the judge would say, when I tried to defend my actions in court, after some man’s face was pulled off by an unleashed, aggressive dog. YOU CANNOT teach a dog to attack using treats, nor can you teach an aggressive dog not to attack using treats. You can desensitize a fearful dog using treats, but you can’t desensitize an aggressive dog using treats. For example, when a dog is being truly threatened by a man, a dog only has 4 options: run the bad guy off, attack and defeat the man, submit to the man, or to curl up into a ball and give up. Put another way, if a bad guy is pointing a gun at you, you aren’t going to feel less threatened if I start feeding you M&M’s. The only way you are going to be safe is if you can run the man off, or you fight and defeat him, or you submit to his wishes and he decides to not hurt you, or you give up and he decides not to hurt you. Treats aren’t going to make you feel safe when someone has a gun pointed at your face.

Most of the clicker training folks get it all wrong here, because they think that all dog behavior can be controlled by positive reinforcement, which is NOT TRUE. The same is true with human behavior… try raising a teenager sometime. You can be rich and have access to all the wonderful things in life and still be a tyrant or mass murderer. Think of people like Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin. They had/ have it all, as dictators of nations, yet these types of people are still brutally aggressive. No amount of appeasing, no amount of reasoning, will cause them to be good people. Because I understand behavior AS IT REALLY WORKS, I don’t have a lot of respect for the clicker training folks. They prove that they don’t really know a thing about dog training. And that is why I don’t recommend them as dog trainers or behaviorists.

You see, just like people, dogs have a hierarchy of motivations. For the typical dog, from lowest priority to highest, they are: Petting, Attention, Treats, Toys, Prey, Dominance and Danger. A dog will choose Attention over Petting, Tasty Treats over Attention, Toys to chase over Treats, live animals to chase over toys to chase, will submit to proper leadership over chasing, and will choose to avoid danger over all other motivations. Therefore, if you have a dog that wants to chase squirrels, then you will both have to apply Dominance and a sense of danger (a leash correction) in order to stop the dog from chasing squirrels. Food treats will not be enough motivation to keep the typical dog from breaking away into a chase. So, click and treat and praise all you wish, but some day, you’re going to have to make obeying an obligation, backed up with a negative consequence, or you are going to lose your dog in a distracting environment. Most of our dog breeds are pre-programmed, through selective breeding, to find certain behaviors to be self reinforcing / rewarding. Scent hounds will follow a trail for days. They aren’t doing it for the praise of the owner, nor for treats. And you can’t train a personal protection dog using clicker training, to prepare the dog for when it is in a life threatening situation; different rules of survival apply in that situation. That is why those “purely positive” clicker trainers fail when it comes to aggressive dogs; their methods can’t work and that is why they avoid working with aggressive dogs, and why they are more likely to tell you to put your dog to death when their programs fail to stop the biting. There are logical behavioral rules for why a dog, such as a police dog, will obey in such a situation. But, those rules don’t fit into the world of those “purely positive” types of training programs. And neither does traditional obedience training.

In addition, dogs need to obey for more than just what the dog is getting out of it, or because the dog is avoiding some negative consequence. You can never forget that dogs are pack animals and predators. It’s ultimately going to be about your relationship with your dog.

If all you are doing is luring dogs to obey, and they are just waiting for a positive reinforcement, then you haven’t really reached the point of calling your dogs obedience trained. If you are still luring dogs, even using a clicker, then when the clicking stops, the dog will look like it is starting to “wilt.”

The clicker folks believe that they can train a dog like you program a computer, input/output, and treats/behavior. This approach has become very popular today. Many so-called trainers believe and teach the myth that you can just train a dog with positive reinforcement and/or negative reinforcement. The truth is that there is a place in all dog training where your leadership must be asserted in order for your dog to obey. Just telling your dog “No” does not make you your dog’s leader. You must establish a RELATIONSHIP, not just a training program, with your dog.

There is a popular dog book out there that tells you that if you are going to be your dog’s leader that you should eat before you let your dog eat, not let your dog decide when it gets to go outside to defecate, not let your dog up on the furniture or sleep on the bed, not let your dog go out the door or down stairs before you, not let the dog lie in front of you when you are going down the hall, etc., etc. That is a bucket of hogwash! You are your dog’s leader because you ARE your dog’s leader, straight from your heart. It is how you behave in relation to your dog, not all that other stuff. It has to be something you believe, which will come out in how you relate to your dog.

Never forget that dogs are predators and pack animals. They are related to the wolf. When a wolf pack is observing a herd, it decides which animal is going to be dinner by how that animal BEHAVES. It registers in their minds that by the way that animal is behaving, it is vulnerable prey, and then they coordinate an attack to cull that animal away from the herd. Likewise, the wolves in the pack observe the behavior of each other, and by their observations, they decide which ones are the leaders and which ones are not. There really is not that much fighting in a wolf pack; not everything is settled by violence. No, it is decided by the behavior of each animal and in the way each animal projects its status to the others. The dominant wolf eats before the subordinate wolf as a result of the dominant wolf’s assertion of it’s leadership position in the pack, as determined by how the dominant wolf behaves and competes for resources in relation to the other wolves. Eating your sandwich at the kitchen table before you put the food bowl on the floor doesn’t set up a leadership position with regards to your dog. (To mimic the wolf, or even a dog pack, you would have to directly compete with your dog for the same food that they are hungering to eat; and no one in their right mind is going to do that kind of thing, and it isn’t necessary… and could actually cause the adult dog to guard food against you. So, go ahead and eat that peanut butter and jelly sandwich while your dog munches away at it’s food bowl. There are better ways of getting your dog’s attention and cooperation.)

The dominant wolf is leader because it asserts its leadership in a variety of situations, a a wolf becomes subordinate in that situation because it defers to the dominant wolf. The result is that the subordinate wolf lets the dominant wolf eat first, take the favored places to sleep, etc. Just because one wolf occupies a favored place does not make it dominant, instead the dominance of the leader causes the subordinate wolf to give up the favored place. Likewise, just because your dog is on the floor instead of your bed does not make you your dog’s leader. Being your dog’s leader will cause your dog to defer to your wishes to stay off the furniture if you so wish. In a similar way, just because your dog sits for a piece of cheese does not make you your dog’s leader, even though you control the delivery of the reinforcement.

Likewise, some people see themselves as leaders, when they are really just stubborn. A dog can tell the difference between a person that truly projects themselves as a leader, and someone that is just being stubborn, which means emotional. Leadership is direction. Dominance is control of situations. I am a a Leader and Dominant person naturally. I do not have to think about it. If you suddenly wake me up in the middle of the night, I wake up as a leader, ready to give directions, and I’m dominant so as to challenge a situation. I do not have to make myself be a leader or to dominate in most situations. Some people are not really leaders, not giving direction, nor are they dominant, seeking control of situations. They have to force themselves to be the leader and be dominant. They are leaders and dominant when they decide to act, but the rest of the time they are not an influential force. A dog can tell when you are leading and being dominant and when you are not and they will take advantage of you.

A person with a dominant personality can do well with a breed that is not more dominant than they are. A person that has to make themselves dominant will have a very hard time with a dog that is more dominant than they are. The dog will appear to be pushy, insubordinate (you aren’t the Master), disobedient, and might even bite you. So, if you are not a truly dominant person, then avoid all of the dominant breeds and protective breeds.

Part of being dominant is being able and willing to say “No.” “No!” has to be enforced in order for you to maintain a proper role with your dog. “No” means “Stop it now, quit paying attention to that, because I told you so.” It also is tool for breaking a dog out of one drive, say prey motivated chasing, into another drive, like being with you as a pack member on a walk. “No” also means you are saying you control that thing or behavior, and is part of asserting dominance. That’s true whether you are raising dogs or kids. [And notice, nowhere in this article am I advocating injuring or terrorizing dogs. Punishment like this, and correction, are NOT the same thing.]

Both leadership and dominance have to be enforced, sometimes using corrections, to have a well mannered dog. Leadership alone isn’t sufficient. Dominance alone isn’t sufficient. You need to become your dog’s Master, which combines these elements, along with affection, in order to have an obedient, well mannered dog.

Lastly, dogs that are raised without corrections can, and do, become insecure, fear biters, spoiled, and/or highly dangerous. I’ve seen it. Some people can never get past the point of viewing their dogs as little puppies, and then they create the very dog that they don’t want and can’t handle. They endanger themselves, their dogs, other dogs, and other people. Children are the mostly likely victim of this warped attitude, being the ones most likely to be attacked by a dog.

When Are Corrections Justified?

When you give a dog a command, and the dog doesn’t do what you commanded, should you give the dog a leash correction? It depends.

I think it’s unfair to even consider correcting a dog unless and until the dog knows what the command means. In other words, I’m going to make sure that the dog understands what is expected before I even consider giving the dog a correction. I give this example to customers to illustrate this point: If I was to offer to hire you for $1 million a year, but I wouldn’t tell you where you worked or who your boss or employees were (if any), or your hours, etc., BUT IF I HAD TO TELL YOU “NO” FIVE TIMES YOU’D BE FIRED, you wouldn’t take the job! It wouldn’t be fair to work in such a place! But, we do this same thing to our dogs! We tell them “No, No, No” and then, if we have to tell them “No” too many times, we “fire” them and give them away to a shelter, or banish them to the back yard, or hit them, or give them a really hard leash correction. You see, that’s not fair. You’ve got to teach before it’s fair to enforce. And then when you enforce, it has to be reasonable and chosen in such a way to make the dog a better dog in the future.

Assuming 1.) you know how to be a dog’s Master (and if you don’t, then you need lessons to learn how), 2.) your dog has had enough foundation learning to know what each command means, and 3) you are considering whether it’s appropriate to give a dog a correction, you must first determine whether the dog is afraid, confused or contending with you. A leash correction is inappropriate if the dog can’t obey because it is afraid. If you’re afraid, and I sock you. in the stomach, you’re still afraid. If you are afraid, it’s not the time to teach you calculus. If your dog is afraid, and you give them a hard leash correction, they are still afraid, and they can’t pay attention to what you are teaching. Fear is the one emotion that will always override all training if intense enough. A leash correction is inappropriate if the dog is confused. If I hit you on the head because you are confused, your IQ won’t suddenly go up. If you give a dog a leash correction when the dog is confused, it won’t make the dog less confused. Further, a correction that is any more than enough to get past the momentary resistance or inattention your dog is displaying won’t work and will backfire. The idea is to lead the dog, not hurt the dog. There are numerous correction methods and techniques. For example, a leash correction, typically, is a quick “pop and release” leash correction, usually using a metal collar (prong or chain) or “momentary stimulation” using an electric collar. This is to be differentiated from using compulsion, which is forcing a dog using  psychological or physical pressure which results in avoidance. Compulsion is completely different than correction, and a dog trainer should know the difference between the two concepts and what methods entail correction and which are using compulsion. Properly used, compulsion can be justified in training. Improperly used, it is harmful to the dog, morally wrong, and should not be used. Properly administered compulsion would typically be more closely synonymous with the concept of negative reinforcement, however the dog would not be subjected to pain or psychologically threatened to the point of only desiring to go into flight. Properly administered compulsion would remain below the level that would result in pain, physical injury, mental anguish, or flight; and would be no more “pressure” than necessary for the dog to still learn and not panic. That is why the electric collar manufacturers only recommend using low level stimulation, because they feel that can be justified in terms of ethics and performance, in order to get avoidant behavior. There are always exceptions to all this theory, and there are always gray areas, and sometimes last resort measures that must be taken to save a dog, so don’t assume this article is designed to teach you all the in’s and out’s of dog training, because it isn’t. Dog training is too complicated sometimes to explain without showing you a real dog in a real situation.

So, when is it fair to give a dog a correction? If you give a dog a TRAINED command, and you know, and the dog knows, what is expected, but the dog refuses to pay attention, or has decided to resist, then it’s fair and productive to use a correction technique. Persistent inattention or resistance to a trained command is disobedience. The dog isn’t focusing on what you are commanding, or is resisting doing what it’s fair and reasonable pack leader is commanding, and it’s fair for you to focus the dog to get the dog to cooperate and obey. And if a verbal correction is ignored, then it’s fair to correct the dog, to teach the dog to avoid leash or other direct corrections in the future.

There are also times when it is appropriate to administer a “negative consequence” (my terminology), which aren’t technically “corrections,” but are called corrections here and in lessons for ease of explanation. These are also justified, to inhibit or redirect destructive or potentially dangerous behaviors. Since we can’t explain the dangers to a dog, we sometimes need to apply negative consequences for the safety of people and the dog. A good example would be using an electric collar to teach rattlesnake avoidance.

Why do people fear corrections? First, because they have the notion that it is going to harm the dog. Well, they won’t, if properly administered. Remember, we aren’t talking abuse, we are talking proper dog training. Second, they fear that they will somehow make the dog more dangerous or harm their relationship with their dog. This is actually the opposite of what happens. Properly trained dogs are more affectionate, less dangerous, more secure and happy. And if you think about it, force is used in the wolf pack, and it hasn’t caused the extinction of the wolf… ever wonder why that is? Ever seen a dog discipline a dog? Ever seen a horse discipline another horse? In fact, the discipline of the pack or herd is a mechanism that promotes harmony, access to food, breeding rights, protection of the young, and survival. Third, they fear what other people might say. We live in a world these days where we are more afraid of offending people than doing the right thing. Well, I’m kind of old fashioned. I am more afraid of not doing the right thing than what a bunch of silly people think. I have seen dogs that were made dangerous because they weren’t corrected. A lot of these so called “all positive” advocates really don’t have expectations of what their dogs (or kids for that matter) must do and must not do. There is no work required, no demands for the dogs to do critical tasks of obedience, and no consequences for refusal. For many, dogs have become fuzzy little people with nothing to do except eat and play: and that makes some dogs dangerous. I have also seen children that became dangerous because they weren’t corrected. I know, specifically, of a boy that was coddled so much by his mom that when he became a teenager, he threw her down the stairs in a fit of anger and put her in the hospital. There was no restraint taught. No self control. No manners. No leadership or dominance from the parents, offset with genuine affection and positives. Look what happens to the kids of the super rich. They go nuts, in and out of mental wards, addicted to drugs, into weird cults, and so on. If you don’t use properly administered corrections on dogs or people or horses, then they all can become dangerous. Then what did all your good intentions get you?

There is a lot more to this topic than I have gone into here. If you wish to learn more, then please contact me.

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.