Welcome to part two of “To Correct Or Not To Correct.” Today, Doug Poynter shares why dog owners gravitate toward correction-based rather than positive behavior training. Find out why alpha dominance amongst dogs is a myth, and discover why punishing your dog does more harm than good. Start rewarding your dog’s good behavior today!
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To Correct Or Not To Correct, Part 2
I want to continue with this episode, a continuation of our last episode. Before I get started, to let you know, I use positive reinforcement in my training. I do clicker training and marker training. I solve canine behavior problems. That is my main focus. I also do dog obedience training. I do behavior modification to solve canine behavior problems. I work with reactive dogs. I work with dogs with aggression, aggressive dogs. I work with fearful dogs. My dog has fear. I’ve worked with that dog quite a bit. I work with dogs that have canine separation anxiety. I work with dogs that are unruly and impolite. Sometimes, people hire me for basic dog obedience training as well. Normally, it’s working with canine behavior problems.
Alpha Dominance Doesn’t Exist
I want to get started continuing the last episode that I did, which was called To Correct or Not to Correct, That is the Question. This is going to be To Correct or Not to Correct, That is the Question Part Two. It’s a controversial subject with people who do what I do. I mentioned in the last episode, you can start fights around this subject of correcting or not correcting. Positive reinforcement trainers are looked at sometimes as wimpy trainers by real trainers, trainers that work with working dogs and intense dogs.
The positive reinforcement training that folks do and what I use to solve canine behavior problems, it works. I mentioned in the last episode that one of the reasons people will say or used to rationalize using corrections with dogs is that dogs correct dogs. I had mentioned that’s true. Dogs correct dogs, but we’re not dogs, we’re people. Gorillas correct gorillas, but people probably wouldn’t be happy being corrected by a gorilla. Dogs being corrected by humans can create all kinds of negative associations, much the same as if a silverback corrected one of us. We probably have a negative association to that. We’ve got to be careful with how we take a look at this whole subject of correction, so that we don’t create negative associations for our dogs.
Another mistake that I see trainers making that rationalizes this idea of correction is the idea that dominance is at play, “My dog is trying to dominate me. My dog does protection work. My dog is one of those working breeds. The dog will dominate us unless we dominate the dog. We have to correct the dog.” This comes from inaccurate information. My first episode is called What’s the Deal With Alpha?. You can go back and read it.
The idea of dominance in terms of canine leadership is a misnomer. It doesn’t exist. It comes from wolves. The idea that there’s an alpha male in a wolf pack who dominates the pack, and that’s how he stays in control, is what has driven a lot of our training with our dogs because we know our dogs descended from wolves. The DNA is anywhere from 98.8% to 99% identical. Dogs and wolves can breed.The idea of dominance in terms of canine leadership is a misnomer. Click To Tweet
Science pretty much agrees that our dogs came from wolves. The argument might be how it happened. The idea that humans domesticated wolves is probably not possible because you have to be with wolf puppies from two weeks or earlier for them to imprint on humans. After two weeks, they want nothing to do with humans. Wolves could have domesticated themselves. Certain wolves understand that, “I can follow those cave people and get food scraps, which means I don’t have to hunt anymore.” Over time, not hunting softened them up a bit. There’s some precedent for that.
There’s a guy who raises foxes in Europe, if I’m remembering correctly. He started with wild foxes. After twenty or so generations, he’s got foxes that have been raised in captivity from wild stock. They’re starting to change their appearance. They have more baby faces. Their ears curl over at the top. Their colors are changing. They look like pets. They look like much softer versions of foxes.
We think now that that might be how wolves became our dogs. They domesticated themselves by not having to hunt anymore. Be that as it may, we know that it’s likely that our dogs came from wolves. What we’ve known in the past is that that alpha male dominates a wolf pack. Canines, pack animals, they need a dominant force to keep them in order. That’s where a lot of training comes from that has that correction undercurrent to it.
The problem is that dominance of an alpha male and a wolf pack doesn’t exist in a wild wolf pack. It was wrong information. It was based on captive wolf studies that we could only do because we couldn’t get near them in the wild. We had hunted them too much. They were afraid of us, until Dr. David Mech did a study of the wolves on Ellesmere Island in 1984. It’s a 16-year study, ‘84 to 2000. He was able to get near the wolves on Ellesmere Island because there were no people on Ellesmere Island. He was able to infiltrate the pack and see how they operate.
You can go see Dr. Mech’s video on YouTube that he put out several years ago in 2005, where he says, “I was wrong. Alpha does not exist the way we think alpha exists. It’s not true. There’s little structure in a wolf pack.” I’ve done a study of Dr. Mech’s studies, and there are certain behaviors that the mom and dad of a wolf pack, because that’s what we have, we don’t have an alpha male. We have a mother and a father who bred and had pups. That’s what a wolf pack is, a family. “I lead the pack because I’m dad,” or “She leads the pack because she’s mom. It’s not because we fight better.” That’s not it.
We’ve based a lot of our training on stuff that does not even exist. What I have sought to do is understand Dr. Mech’s studies, and also learn the positive reinforcement training that people like Karen Pryor put together with her clicker training, operant and classical conditioning, and to understand how that works with our dogs. Folks, I will tell you, I see progress that’s way beyond what standard training is able to make with dogs, correction-based training. I solve a lot of problems that have been created by correction-based training.
We talked a little bit about that in the previous episode about correction. What I want to say to you with this episode, I want to wrap this whole process up. By the way, I’m not naïve enough to think that just because I said this and I referenced Dave Mech, who’s the world’s foremost authority on wolves, who said the alpha dominance doesn’t exist in a real wolf pack in the wild. Captive wolf packs that were in prison, but it doesn’t end the real wolf pack. I don’t believe for a moment that this is going to convince everybody who thinks that correction-based training or corrections in training is a good thing. I don’t believe it’s going to convince them to stop doing that.
On the YouTube video with Dr. Mech talking about his research on wolves, there were guys on that YouTube video who were telling Dr. Mech that he was wrong, which is crazy. This is the world’s foremost authority on wolves. Some guys are out there saying, “I don’t believe that.” No science to base it based on that person’s supposition that Dr. Mech is wrong, it’s simply something that I’ve seen on TV from somebody who says dominance and submission is what we need, yet another person who doesn’t have a science background to understand this the way it is. We’re arguing with a guy who’s the world’s foremost authority on wolves.
I don’t believe that just because I’m saying this that it’s going to convince somebody who’s convinced that corrections are necessary to train his or her dog to stop doing that. I hope it will, but I’m not naive enough to think that it will. The folks that I want to get to are you guys who are reading this, who are open minded, and who want to do the best by your dogs. That’s why I put this stuff out. If I can convince somebody who thinks otherwise to come to this side of the equation, to come to the dark side as they might say, then that will be a good thing.
Is Punishment Easier?
I believe there’s another reason why this correction-based stuff is popular, and why many people use it and why many people think it’s what is needed to shape a dog’s behavior. The idea behind it is we teach the dog with positive reinforcement, and then we put the dog in a scenario where it would make a mistake and then we correct it so the dog knows its boundaries. It knows, “This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m not supposed to do.” I get it. The problem is that what goes for corrections is generally some type of punishment might be mild, more than mild, or pretty intense, but it’s punishment nonetheless. It creates a negative association with the dog. It can create behavior problems of its own.
The reason why people gravitate towards that besides misinformation is it’s easier than positive reinforcement. It’s way easier to try to correct a behavior than to try to change it with behavior modification or teaching the dog another behavior that would preclude the dog performing the bad behavior. For example, it’s easier to knee the dog in the chest if the dog is jumping on you, or it’s easier to yell no and push the dog down than it is to teach the dog to sit. That is the positive reinforcement way to stop a dog from jumping, is to teach the dog when it approaches people to sit, not jump.
You might say, “I don’t think that you can do that. My dog is pretty intense and wants to jump.” I’ll tell you a little story. I had a session with the client. They had just adopted a 150-pound Great Dane. First, we’re told he weighed 170, but he only weighed 150. That’s still pretty big. I was told that he’s very friendly, but when he meets you, what he’s going to do is he’s going to run and jump on you, and put his front paw up on your shoulder. I’m a pretty tall guy. I’m six 6’3”, but a 150-pound Great Dane could easily be as tall as me or taller by standing up on his hind legs and putting his front paw on my shoulder. I’m a relatively big guy. That’s not going to knock me over, but it would knock over a small person.
They didn’t want him to do that. He had been at a boarding kennel prior to these folks adopting him and had a real intense command and correct, that’s what I call him, type of trainer, military type of guy. This guy said, “You’ve got to get a hold of this dog. You’ve got to correct him. You’ve got to prong collar him. You’ve got to make sure that he doesn’t get out of control because he could dominate, and we will have real trouble here.
When I went to go visit them, they brought the dog out and he looked at me and he got excited. While he was standing in front of me with four feet on the ground, I clicked and tossed him a food treat. He put his head down to get the food treat. As he was putting his head down to get the food treat off the ground, I clicked and tossed him another food treat. He got that food treat. He looked up at me and he stood there. I clicked and tossed him another one. I’m marking him standing with all four feet on the ground. As he approached me, I said, “Sit.” He calmly sat and I clicked and treated, and then I moved. He moved with me. I asked him to sit again, and he’s in front of me. He sat, and I clicked and I treated. I did that for 2 or 3 minutes, and he never jumped on me.
At the end of the session, I said to my clients, “Did you notice how he never jumped?” They said, “Now that you mentioned that, he didn’t jump.” I said, “That’s because I taught him to do something when he greets a person that A) Would keep him from jumping, and B) Was more fun than jumping, because what he got when he sat in front of me was a click and a high-value food treat. It’s now more motivating for him to sit than it would be for him to jump.”
What was interesting is for the rest of the session, we were working with him with some healing and teaching them how to walk him, doing some exercise in their backyard. Whenever we’d get done with that, whenever they would stop and he would walk over and approach me, he would sit. I clicked and I treated. A couple of times, I didn’t click and treat. I just petted him and told him, “Good boy.”
Every time that dog saw me, he would go ahead and automatically sit. It’s easy for me because I’ve been doing that for a while, but sometimes it’s not as easy to think up an exercise that would keep a behavior problem from occurring by the nature of the behavior you teach the dog and now cannot perform the bad behavior. That’s not the easiest thing. Sometimes it’s easier to correct it. That’s why I say, and I mentioned it in the first episode on Correct or Not to Correct, That’s the Question, I said it’s intellectually lazy when what we do is depend on corrections. We need to be better at what we do so we can think up the exercises, we can teach the dog to perform that would preclude the “bad behavior.”
It’s just behavior. If we defined it as bad, then that might make us have a negative view of it, which could also contribute to wanting to correct it. It’s not bad behavior. It’s just behavior. It’s probably been rewarded. Unknowingly, people have rewarded the behavior so the dog continues to do it well. We change the behavior that we teach the dog and then we reward that better behavior. That begins to change the way the dog acts around us. That’s something that I do. Sometimes, it takes me a while to think up an exercise. If I corrected it, I could do that right in the moment, but again, I’m creating negative associations for the dog. It requires us being better at what we do to work with positive reinforcement.
Positive Reinforcement Is Difficult
I’ll give you another example. I am constantly learning on this. This is a scenario that’s difficult to maintain a positive reinforcement outlook. I’ll admit it, it’s not easy at all. I had a client, a chocolate lab, female puppy, 6 to 7 months old, high energy. Her owner can’t walk her because she pulls like a beast. She’s got the chocolate lab crazy kind of energy. When the lady brought the dog out to me on a leash, she was dragging this lady down the sidewalk. I said, “Let me have the leash.” She handed me the leash. As soon as she handed me the leash, the dog took off running. I stood there and the dog went to the end of the leash, and the end of the leash stopped the dog.
You might be able to say that’s a correction. It probably was. I didn’t pull back on the leash. I didn’t pop the leash. I stood there like a tree, and the dog turned around and came back to me. When she came back to me and created slack in the line, then I clicked and treated. She took off again, and I stood there. I didn’t actively correct the dog, but the dog going to the end of the leash when the leash didn’t move, you could say that was a correction. The scenario corrected her. I wasn’t trying to do it, but every time she put slack in the lead, I would click and treat.
By the time we got to the end of the session, I had her standing near me with a slack leash. I was able to walk her a little distance and have her walk politely, and then she’d try to take off again. I would plant my feet and stop, and she’d go to the end of the leash. Instead of hitting it, she would stop at the end of the leash and come back. When she came back and she was near me, that’s when she got a click and treat.
It’s going to take more than one session. If I had done the old command and correct training with her, I would have had her run to the end of the leash, and then I would turn around and gone the other way and pop the leash, and it would’ve corrected her giving her some pressure on the neck, and she would’ve run back the other way. I would have been popping her for a while. I might have been able to get her to walk politely next to me faster, but it wouldn’t be as fun for her. It wouldn’t be something that she wanted to do. It would be something that she had to comply to do. It would be something that she was forced to do.
If you’re thinking, “I’ve got to dominate my dog,” then that’s what you want. We know that dominating the dog is not what we need to do. What we need to do is reward the behavior that we want. I’d much rather have a dog that was enthusiastic about working for me, rather than one who felt like it had to work for me or it was going to get some type of pain.
I hope this makes sense to you. It takes longer sometimes, but the result is a dog that enjoys working for the owner. I cannot tell you how many clients I have with dogs who have been “classically trained” with corrections who exhibit little or no enthusiasm for what they do. We start working with the positive reinforcement. They get excited about doing the work. Now, we’ve got a dog that’s enthusiastic to work for us.
I took this experience with her, and I translated it over to my dog. I’ve got a rescue dog who loves to pull on a leash. As much as I want to do positive reinforcement, sometimes it feels like I have to give her a little nudge with the leash to say, “Stop doing that,” in order to get her to slow down. I took her out for a nice long walk and I said, “I’m going to take my own advice here. I’m going to see what I can do with this.” What was interesting is that it was counterintuitive what it was that I needed to do. When I forced myself to do it, I noticed the work is with me, not the dog. When I forced myself to do it, the difference was unbelievable.
I had my dog heeling on the left. We’re walking in this office complex at night, and she’s wanting to go run and examine everything. All I did was keep a good grip on the loop of the end of the handle of the leash with my right hand and was across in front of me. She was on my left. I did not pull at all. I made it so loose. I kept the good grip, but I had no tension on the leash whatsoever. She would run off to the end of it, and I would stop and she would come back.
When she got next to me, I clicked and treated. I walk again with a totally loose leash. Every now and again, I did a U-turn without pulling on the leash when she got in front of me. As long as I kept that leash loose, she started getting closer to me on my left side. Before long, that leash was totally loose and she was walking right next to me on the left side. It took a while, but it was the magic of the loose leash and the magic of no corrections, but rewarding when she was where I wanted her to be. She was right on my left side, I clicked and I treated. It took 15 or 20 minutes, and then all of a sudden, she had it. We’re walking through that parking lot on a totally loose leash.As long as you keep your leash loose, your dog will get trained to stay closer and closer to your side. Click To Tweet
She’s as happy as she can be, looking around, “What’s going on here? What’s going on there? This is so much fun. I’m walking next to dad.” We had a pleasant walk. Again, it took a little bit of patience on my part. It took me not getting engaged in something that felt like it would be obvious to do. In other words, if she’s pulling on the leash, I pull back. It took me making sure I wasn’t doing that at all, not even a little bit for her behavior to change, and for her to stay right next to me and walk calmly. If you can begin to think about your dog this way, your dog is a reward machine. Your dog figures out how to get what he or she wants, and then they do it over and over again if they got rewarded for it.
What we want to make sure of is that we are rewarding the dog for behavior that we want to have happen. If we don’t want to be jumped on, we teach the dog to sit, and then reward the dog. Anytime it runs up to us, we ask it to sit. When it sits, we mark it and then we reward it. That’s the way to change a behavior problem.
To Correct Or Not To Correct
Again, it’s more difficult, it takes more thinking and training skill to figure out these exercises to help with behavior problems. If you have behavior problems with your dog, you need to work with somebody who’s using positive reinforcement and who’s good at it, and understands how to create exercises, how to create scenarios that would preclude the dog from behaving in a bad way by teaching the dog to do something in a good way. That’s the conclusion of To Correct or Not to Correct, That is the Question.
Remember, our goal is to create a behavior that would keep the dog from performing the bad behavior and make it fun for the dog to perform the new behavior. I had a client with a puppy that would bite her. The dog would run up and bite her in the arm. What I taught her to do is train the dog to target her hand with a calm nose on the hand, and the dog got rewarded for that. If the dog was running at her, we had the dog stop and sit. If the dog acted like she was going to bite my client, my client marked before the dog could bite and drop the food treat on the ground, and the dog would get the food treat and then target my client’s hand to get yet another food treat. It didn’t take long before the dog didn’t bite her anymore.
Remember, it takes some creativity to do this. There are plenty of resources out there. You can get any of the positive reinforcement stuff, canine problem stuff, clicker training stuff. If you want to talk to me, you can go on my website, BetterDogBehaviorNow.com. I’m happy to do a discovery session with you. There are all kinds of stuff that you can do with your dog, to teach your dog to behave properly, and reward that proper behavior that will make your dog a polite and pleasant dog to be around.
Anyway, that’s the show. That finishes up the corrections. I hope I’ve convinced you that rewards are better than corrections. I won’t give up on this. This will continue to come up during my show, but I wanted to wrap that up with you. I look forward to speaking with you next time.
- What’s the Deal With Alpha? – Past Episode