When dogs “misbehave,” most people would respond by correcting them. But, is correction really the best way to train your dog? Doug Poynter would disagree. In this episode, Doug explains why correction works short term but not so much in the long term. Correction training might even make matters worse for you and your beloved pet. Why? First of all, this method is grounded on a theory that was based on a myth. Second, there are better ways to train your dog through positive reinforcement. How? Listen to this episode and learn the best methods to train your canine without inflicting harm or punishment.
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To Correct Or Not To Correct, That Is The Question…
I was speaking with one of my friends who’s a great dog trainer, and she trains in the protection work areas. She does Schutzhund or IPO. She does French Ring and Mondioring. I told her, “I don’t have the patience for all that.” I love watching it. I love the dog sport itself and to verge into those areas. I’ve done protection work with my dogs. I do scent work with my dog now. That’s a lot of fun. I’ll probably do an episode about that because I’ve solved quite a few behavior problems with scent work, believe it or not.
I’ll talk about that at some date. I like to do all that training, like the obedience training and whatnot, but I don’t have the patience to work at the level those guys work at and get the detail they have to get. Some of those dogs are so unbelievably trained. I saw a video at a working dog title where a lady from Ukraine won with an obedience routine that was as close to perfection as I have ever seen. I can’t believe that the judge took three points from her.
My friend and I were discussing this and she said, “I think it’s because she was a girl, the handler, and it’s a man’s sport.” I went, “I was going to say the same thing. I totally agree because there was no way you could take any points from that dog. That was a perfect obedience routine.” The amount of skill that it takes to get that from a dog, the work and patience that it takes to get that from a dog, the talent and the focus on the part of the dog, and working together with the handler or the trainer is amazing. I love that stuff, but I don’t have the patience for it. That’s why I work on solving behavior problems. Most of the folks that I work with are not interested in having an obedience champion dog.
I do teach dog obedience, but I’m working more with folks who want a dog that comes to them when they call them, will stay when they ask them to stay, doesn’t bite the neighbors, and a dog that’s easy to live within the house. If the dog is afraid, we fix those types of things like separation anxiety. I work with aggression and reactivity. I do behavior modification. I work with marker training and clicker training. I use the clicker to solve all kinds of problems. It’s unbelievable what you can do with this technology and I use positive reinforcement. What I want to talk with you about in this session is positive reinforcement. I’m about to start or open up a topic that can literally cause fights among people who do what I do.
Alpha Dominance Is A Myth
I have seen people lose it to point of being furious around this subject, so I’m going to dive in. If you don’t like what I’m saying, that’s fine. I will tell you I don’t do anything with my clients that I haven’t found science to back it up. I’ve even seen people argue with science. That could tell you why we might have some problems in this industry with varying opinions and how strong the emotions are. I even saw there’s a video on YouTube of Dr. David Mech. If you’ve read the episode before, especially the one about What’s The Deal With Alpha, then you’ve read about Dr. David Mech, the world’s foremost authority on wolves. He’s the one who discovered that alpha dominance is not part of a wolf pack.
There is no conflict in a wolf pack. There are no wolves trained to take over the pack from a bigger, stronger, dominant male who slaps everybody down and keeps control of the pack. Dr. Mech discovered that doing a study of the wolves on the Ellesmere Islands. It’s the very first study that was ever done where we could study wolves in their natural environment. The alpha dominance principle was created in canines by studying wolves in captivity.
Wolves who were imprisoned, captured from the wild in different areas and put into pens. That’s not the way they are in the real world of wolves and canine behavior. Dr. Mech came out on YouTube many years ago and said, “I was wrong. I’m the one who put the name alpha on the lead male in a wolf pack. The idea that a lead male in the wolf pack is the lead male because he fights better is wrong. It’s because he’s a dad. The lead female is because she’s a mom and the pack of their pups. It’s a family.”
He put this video out, and there’s science out to back it, and his studies are all over the internet. You can find it. There were people on the YouTube video arguing with him, telling him he was wrong, people who have no clue about the reality of wolves and the science that goes into these studies. They’re arguing with the expert and with 1 of the 2 or 3 most knowledgeable people on the planet about the animal. This is one of the reasons why we have some problems in these areas. What I’m about to say may create some issues and people who are upset. I’m not going to change this until I see the science that tells me to change it.
Correction Makes Things Worse
I’m not going to change this based on the opinion of somebody who’s been “doing this a long time” because the science says differently. If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. It’s okay. No big deal. Anyway, I’m going to go ahead and address this topic, and that is the topic of correction in training and whether correction works or whether correction makes things worse for your dog. I’m going to tell you that the way I do my business is I do everything that I can do to avoid having to do a correction. I do not do corrections with dogs. I’ll give you an example, folks. I had a client that was referred to me a few years ago. It was pre-COVID. He had a German Shepherd named Zeus.
Zeus was a participant in Schutzhund’s training. That’s German protection training. I mentioned it a little bit earlier. They do tracking, obedience, and protection work. The protection work is what gets everybody excited. The obedience is cool. The tracking is what I like. It’s the science of tracking it and what dogs can do with their nose. It is unbelievable. Everybody gravitates towards protection work.
Zeus’s problem was he was a little too wired up for this work. He was a little too nervy. He wasn’t stable enough to do this type of work. His owner had taken him to protection or to a Schutzhund trainer who was also an old-school trainer. He believed in corrections as part of the training, what I call Command and Correct. The rationale behind it is you teach the dog what you want the dog to do, and then you put the dog in scenarios where he makes a mistake and you correct him, so he understands the boundaries.
He understands this is what I’m allowed to do and this is what I’m not allowed to do. You train under no distractions and get the dog’s training polished under no distractions, then you take the dog into the distraction environment. That’s when a lot of corrections will occur to keep the dog focused and training on point. That’s the old-school type of training. It comes from a dominance theory. We must dominate the dog and be the dominant leader of the dog, especially a working dog or we’re going to have a problem. That comes from the idea that if it is good for wolves, then it’s good for our dogs because our dogs are descended from wolves. The problem is it’s not true in wolves. That dominant theory is not true.
Dr. Mech has proven that with his studies of wolves in their natural environment. Right off, from my perspective, quite a bit of our training has been based on something that’s not true. If what we’ve known about our dogs has come from what we have discerned from wolves, and if what we’ve known about wolves or discerned from wolves is not accurate, then what we’ve done with our dogs is not accurate either. What I say is let’s get the accuracy and the real information in there and work off of that.
His owner had taken Zeus to this Schutzhund trainer who wanted his owner to sit on him a little bit more, correct him more, and make sure that he stays in line because he’s a little nervy. He’s a German Shepherd and we’re all going to have problems. He’s going to hurt somebody or dominate somebody because he’s a working dog and he’s intense.
The owner pulled him out of the Schutzhund trainings and he said, “I didn’t want to do that anymore.” He took him to a board and train facility. When he’d been there for a couple of hours and it was time to go work with him for the first time, they took him out of the crate. He came out of the crate and tried to attack the trainer. They called me and they said, “We’re not going to keep him here. We don’t have time to deal with all that. Will you take him?” I said, “Sure, I’ll take him.” I don’t board and train because problems occur where the dog lives. There are associations to that, so I fixed the problem where they live.
He went back to his owner and I went to his owner’s house for our first session. I asked him to bring the dog out on a leash. I said, “I don’t want you to say anything to him. I don’t care how he reacts to me. I want you to hold him on the leash.” I showed him how to hold the leash so the leash didn’t aggravate the dog and I was able to remain secure because I don’t want to be bitten either.Alpha dominance is not part of a wolf pack. There is no conflict in a wolf pack. There are no wolves trained to take over the pack from a bigger, stronger, dominant male who slaps everybody down and keeps control of the pack. Click To Tweet
Before he brought Zeus out, I asked him, “What is your goal for this dog?” He said, “I’d like to go down to the beach and I want to be able to walk him out there with all the people on the boardwalk.” I said, “Okay.” He brought Zeus out, and the moment Zeus laid his eyes on me, he went berserk. If you’ve ever heard of German Shepherd bark, this was a full-throated, full-thrusted, up on his hind legs, lips curled over his teeth, barking at the top of his lungs. I was a good 50 to 60 feet from him, and he was losing it at that distance.
I worked with Jeff, his owner’s name, and Zeus for probably 30 to 45 minutes. At the 45-minute mark, we took Zeus for a walk. Jeff walked him and I walked beside him. I was 5 feet from him, not a peep out of him. He wagged his tail and walked politely. We had no issues with him and me being that close. 30 to 45 minutes earlier, he wanted to rip my face off. There were no corrections. Not one correction, not one from Jeff, not one from me.
Behavior modification is what I used with Zeus. If you keep reading this episode, I’m going to tell you how I did what I did with Zeus. I use it a lot, but what I’m wanting to impress upon you now is the very scenario that someone would feel the need to correct was the very scenario in which I did nothing in the way of a correction, but I did behavior modification. As a matter of fact, what I find is that many times, corrections make the problem or make behavior worse.
That could be the reason why this dog Zeus was so “nervy.” It is because the training that he had gotten, as I said, was that old command and correct training. He had been corrected quite a bit, which is an intensely negative experience for a dog. There’s nothing wrong with a correction. Dogs need corrections so that they understand what they can and can’t do. By the way, dogs correct dogs. Why do you guys, who use positive reinforcement, say corrections are bad? I go, “Yes, dogs do correct dogs, but we’re not dogs. We’re humans.” Suppose a gorilla corrected a human, how would we interpret that? Suppose a lion or an elephant corrected a human, how would we interpret that?
We would not interpret that he’s trying to help me understand the boundaries. We would interpret that we were being attacked and we would attack back. What I want you to understand is that a correction is a negative association with a dog. The reason why we’ve been able to do it for so many years is because dogs happen to be a gift from God. That’s what I call dogs. What is dog spelled backwards? Dr. Mech, in his study on the wolves of Ellesmere Island, there’s a documentary out about it. It’s called White Wolf. You can get it from National Geographic. It’s rare in production. I hope you can still get it. I have a copy of it.
They show Dr. Mech leaning up against the wall of the den that houses the wolf mama and the pups. Mama and the pups are out walking around 5 to 10 feet from him with no fear whatsoever, neither of him nor the cameraman. I don’t think you could do that with any other wild animal, like deer. It might be evidence of why dogs have become such a part of our lives. They’re attached to us in some way, shape, or form. It’s some type of mystical attachment. I don’t want to get into that, because that’s opening another can of worms.
Even bad training tends to create some type of result with dogs because they’re just so connected to us. The way I look at it is why create a negative association for the dog? Why don’t we create a positive experience for the dog where the dog loves to work and behave as opposed to being forced to do things that are negative as far as the dog is concerned?
Positive Reinforcement In Action
I will tell you, I did five sessions with Zeus. Session number one, the first 30 minutes, is thinking that he might walk on the boardwalk of Virginia Beach. If you had seen him, you would’ve said, “There’s no way possible.” At the last fifteen minutes of that session, you would say, “We might have a chance here. He’s walking politely.” I didn’t do any corrections with him, and neither did his owner. In the second session, we worked more on his obedience and him being able to be around me.
In the third session, he took a food treat politely out of my hand. By the way, just so you know, I’ll always tell my clients with dogs like that, “I’m not going to touch your dog until your dog is begging me to touch him. I’m not because what I want is I want him to begin to look at me like, ‘Why can’t I get some attention from that guy,’ and then we start to make progress.” That happened in our third session. In our fourth session, we took Zeus down to Colonial Williamsburg. Colonial Williamsburg here in Virginia has got thousands of people walking around it.
We went and took him to Merchant Square and he walked through there calmly and peacefully. No leash corrections, no popping him, and no having to tell him to do anything because we had taught him to walk politely on a loose leash with positive reinforcement. We sat on a bench and Zeus laid down on the bricks in front of the bench and watched people walk by, nice and calm. There were no negative associations with people. He did not get pain as a result of his interactions with people. He got positive reinforcement. When he looked at people politely, he got a click and a treat. He began to associate the sight of people with fun stuff.
In our fifth session, we took him into Bass Pro Shop. We walked in there and he was nice and calm. He was looking around. He had never been inside a place like that before. He even had another couple with a little dog walk up to him and he sniffed the dog. We walked around and one of the employees at Bass Pro Shop stopped us, he was behind the counter, and he said, “That’s a nice dog.” We stopped and talked to him. I had that moment when I realized something was going on behind me. I turned around and looked. There was a Bass Pro Shop employee who had cupped Zeus’s face with his hands and had his face an inch from Zeus’s nose even. He’s such a good dog. Zeus’s owner turned white as a sheet.
I didn’t want to say anything that would get Zeus thinking there was something untoward going on and make the dog nervous. I said to the guy, “He’s in training right now.” He said, “Okay,” stood up straight and walked away. Zeus was seated peacefully there. I said to his owner, “Do we have success?” He said, “If he could do that, then we have success.” Not one correction is done on this dog.
My personal opinion is that my job is someone who’s solving canine behavior problems. When I have a behavior problem that I’m dealing with, it’s to teach a dog a competing behavior that will not allow him to perform the bad behavior. When dogs jump on people, there are all kinds of strategies that people use that end up being a correction.
I was on a forum one night and somebody had written in, “When I get home, my dog jumps on me. When people come to the house, my dog jumps on me. What should we do?” The trainer who ran this forum had all these strategies. Knee the dog, correct the dog, or pop the dog with the leash. I wrote in, “Why don’t you teach the dog to sit when it comes up to people?” There were no responses after that. About 2 or 3 weeks later, I had a similar question, and that exact same trainer, to her credit, now was saying, “Why don’t you teach the dog to sit in front of you instead of jump?” I find that works well. The dog runs up to me and wants to jump, I teach the dog to sit.
Does the dog sit every single time during the first session? No, but you can see the dog learning it and all of a sudden, in session two, that dog is running up and being seated or seating himself or herself politely right in front of me. It’s a joke with my clients. When I take my clients on a walk, we’ll take a little group walk, everybody laughs and jokes because they get their dogs out of the car. When I get out of my car, their dogs see me, and they all sit right where they are. Why? Not because I’ve got some magical power. It’s because that’s what I taught them to do. It’s so much better than popping the dog with the leash and making the dog sit. It’s cool to watch the dog want to sit and get rewarded for it.
What I always say is relying on corrections is intellectually lazy. Our job should be to figure out how we can work with our dogs in a positive way and teach positive experiences without corrections. It takes more work. Sometimes, it takes more time, but the result is a dog that’s got much more of a positive association to work than negative associations.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you’ve got a dog that’s reactive to other dogs. I’ll use another client of mine. He has a German Shepherd as well. His German Shepherd’s name is Luke. He’s a nice dog. Czechoslovakian bloodline and very friendly with people, but Luke was highly reactive to other dogs. When I got the contact sheet on my website and I called the owner, I asked, “Is there anything happened that you can pinpoint that has created this?” “When he was six months old, we took him to a dog park and another dog jumped on him. From that point on, he’s been reactive to other dogs.”
After asking a few other questions, my next question was, “When this happens, what is your response?” He said, “I can stop it by correcting it. When he has that issue, if I pop him with the leash and I correct it, he’ll stop.” Guys, if what you’re looking for is fast results, then you can get fast results with the correction. That’s what I told this guy. I said, “You can stop it immediately with hard enough correction, but you do not change the way your dog feels about the other dog when you do that.” There was a pause and he went, “You’re right. I get that.”
I said, “What you’ve done is you’ve stopped him from doing what he wants to do, but you haven’t stopped him from wanting to do it. He’s afraid to do it, which means if you’re not there to stop it, there’s going to be a problem. If you want to work with me, what I’m going to do is teach him to feel differently about the other dog.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “We’re going to teach him with behavior modification that the sight of another dog means something good happens to him. It’s going to take some work and some dedication on your part. There’s timing involved, persistence, and other factors.” He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “What we’re basically doing is desensitizing him to the sight of other dogs. What we have to do is understand that distance is our friend with this.” “What do you mean?” I said, “You probably know the distance at which he can see another dog and he’ll go ballistic. Where we need to start with this exercise is the distance at which he can see another dog and have only a reaction of noticing the dog, not losing it. That’s where we start our behavioral work.”
This was a different way for him to think about it. We, in fact, started with his dog being inside his house behind a storm door and me being outside with a neighbor’s dog who was very calm. We’re probably somewhere between 40 and 50 yards away. At that distance, Luke could look at the dog and not have a reaction. That’s where we started our behavior modification. As we got better, he gradually got closer and closer.
I always show my clients how to do this. As I said, I’m going to do an episode that shows you the exercise to do this. It’s called Engage-Disengage. I can explain it in the episode and I will maybe in the next one that I do, so stay tuned. In the next couple, I’ll do this. At any rate, he got Luke to where he was reasonably good walking on the street and he would see another dog around the corner or ahead of him, and he would not react to the other dog. He got rewarded when he didn’t react, so things were going well.
His owner called me and said, “We’ve had a setback.’ I said, “What happened?” He said, “This happened and he went off on this other dog.” I said, “How close were you to the other dog?” What happened was he pushed it too close too quickly. I said, “That was going too far, too fast. You’ve got to start all over again, but it won’t take you as long to get back to where you were before because you’ve been there. You’ve got to go slowly.”
We actually set up another session at a dog park. We did not go in the dog park. The cool thing about doing a session like this at the dog park is that the dogs are a distance away and they’re behind a fence, so we have control. By the way, you’ve heard me go on and on about this. You haven’t heard me say we corrected his dog at all. We never did. We didn’t have to. Once he understood about desensitizing and taking the distance gradually, he started to see progress.
It was imperative that he see progress because his wife, who likes to do protection work with her dogs, had purchased a Belgian Malinois puppy that was ready to be picked up in a month. We had to get this right because we didn’t want a dead Belgian Malinois puppy. He worked very hard. He was very diligent with it. They had the puppy for a week, and they sent me a text with a picture of Luke and the puppy in a perfect sit facing the owner.
Maybe three weeks after that, they sent me a video and a text of Luke and the Belgian Malinois puppy running around the backyard playing with each other. The wording in the text was, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. We never thought this was going to happen.” Not one correction. All behavior modification.
Why Correction Doesn’t Work Long-Term
There’d be people who say, “There are things that you can’t do unless you correct the dog. My dog wants to kill the squirrel, so you can’t stop that unless you correct the dog.” That’s not true. You have to know what you’re doing, be persistent with it, and open your mind to the idea that there’s a better way. I want to say this to you. If what you’re thinking is, “My dog has got problems and I’ve seen people correcting dogs on TV,” you don’t see the aftermath of what those corrections do after the TV broadcast.
You don’t see what is ongoing. I’m not here to say that none of my clients ever have any problems after we work together. They do, but it’s almost always because A) The owner made a mistake and pushed it too far, too fast, or B) They got busy and stopped doing the work with their dogs. If you’re going to train without corrections and use positive reinforcement, it’s going to take some work, dedication, and knowledge. What I’m going to do is I’ll be sharing some behavior modification tips and techniques in the near future.
Before we go there, I want you to open up to the idea that it is possible to train a dog without corrections. The problem is that you can correct the dog and they will take it. We’re lazy. Try correcting a cat. You can’t correct a cat, but you can train a cat with marker training and clicker training. Try correcting a dolphin. You can’t correct the dolphin. With whistles is the way it started with dolphins. With marker training, you can train dolphins to do precise behaviors.
That’s how this whole business of clicker training started. It is training dolphins. You can go to a zoo and watch a gorilla take his body, push it up against the bar, and wait to be poked with a needle trained by clickers. Marker training is no corrections. Correct a gorilla and see what happens. You can’t do it. When you have to train an animal you can’t correct, you have to figure out a way.
What I’m going to ask you to do is open up your mind and say, “Our dogs deserve our respect. What dogs are is partners with us. They’ve helped us civilize the West. They’ve helped us bring civilization into existence out of the caves and into the house. Dogs have been a big part of that. We owe it to them to figure out a way to do this in such a way that respects them and makes it a positive experience for them to work with us.”
That’s what I want you to think about. Keep this in mind. You can’t correct a gorilla or elephant. We ought to be thinking the same way about our dogs. We’re not going to correct them. We’re going to teach them and work with them. I think you’ll find that you’ve got the most willing partner you ever had. They’re great to work with when they love working for you. Remember that. No corrections if you can help it.Even bad training tends to create some type of result with dogs because they're just so connected to us. Click To Tweet
I will be giving you tricks and tips going forward about how you can solve some behavior problems without corrections. Based on what I said, I want to teach you the Engage-Disengage exercise so that if you have reactivity, you can begin to work on that. Always remember that if you’ve got a dog that appears to be dangerous or aggressive and you are concerned about that, I don’t want you to risk anything.
I want you to stay safe and keep your family safe, the neighbors safe, and other dogs safe. Hire a qualified behaviorist to help you with this so that everybody stays safe. If you see my advertisement for my show, the word dog is in parenthesis. The reason why is because Better Behavior Now is what I’m talking about on both parts of the dog and the people. I’m teaching owners and I’m helping dogs. I love talking with you and I will talk with you next time.