Saturday, 9 July 2011


The topic of correction is one that I have spent quite some time thinking about, and I still am. I have much to learn, and would love to hear your thoughts and comments. What I am sure about is that the term correction is important in itself – as opposed to punishment. Correction is about learning, and punishment is about justice. Dogs are not moral beings, and have no concept of right or wrong in the moral sense. They don’t feel guilt the way we do. Therefore punishing a dog is at best a waste of time, and at worst detrimental to the dog’s physical and mental health.

While I am increasingly finding that behavioural changes are best achieved by conditioning through positive reinforcement, I am also pretty sure that appropriate and well-timed corrections are necessary and beneficial to the interaction with, and training of any dog. Like children, dogs do need boundaries for their own wellbeing and safety, and in order for life in a human-dog household to be a comfortable and happy one for all species involved.

A dog cannot be allowed to steal food, go to the toilet indoors, show aggression to family members, chew furniture, bark excessively or engage in other kind of dangerous, destructive or anti-social behaviour. Some consider the enforcement of these “house rules” as a matter of hierarchy and dominance, and I am still undecided on this theory, but I do know that it is a matter of pragmatics. If you allow your dog to get away with these behaviours you won’t be happy, and so your dog won’t be either.

Correcting these behaviour should not be a difficult or fraught experience, especially if you are starting from puppyhood. Usually a “no” said with a stern voice together with a determined posture, and if necessary a gentle but firm push away, or quick tug at the leash, should be enough. The actual word is not important, of course, and I think it is best to find one that comes naturally (for example, Cesar Millan uses that “tssst” sound because that is how his mother used to tell her children off). I usually go for a sharp “ah-ah”. Some repetition will inevitably be necessary, but after a while you will find that the “no” or “leave”, or whatever, is enough to stop the dog doing what he or she is doing.

Timing is crucial to good correction. The correction must come during or immediately after the offending behaviour. If you miss this time-window, it is better not to correct, as you will end up confusing your dog and teaching them nothing at all. This is even more important if you find that you need to step up the intensity of the correction. While I have found that I can very effectively correct the vast majority of unwanted behaviour by the above method, some things need something more drastic, or indeed, something else altogether.

This is where I am still working by trial and error. A big lesson I have learned, though, is that not all unwanted behaviour is best dealt with by correction. In fact, I am now of the opinion that the first approach to changing behaviour should be trying to find a positive reinforcement for an appropriate, alternative desirable behaviour. Working with what the dog wants to make it do what you want, is simply the easiest way in most cases.

I have previously written about my feeding time ritual, which I realized worked wonders to correct my dogs' begging behaviour. As my dogs have to lie down and wait before they get fed, every time, they tend to lie down when they want someone’s food – rather than sticking their noses in people’s faces. I think the principle is applicable to a range of behavioural issues, but it needs a little bit of lateral thinking to figure out how to harness the dog’s desires to modify their unwanted behaviours.

I also had quite some trouble getting Cassie to come back to me when called, and continuing corrections using a long lead seemed to have very limited effect. She was clearly aware when she wasn’t on the lead and I couldn’t get her. I then decided on an intense programme of conditioning – using toys and varied tasty treats, I called her back to me frequently in a range of situations, reinforcing the idea that coming back equals treat. (You can read more about my methods for recall training here). She is not 100% but I have seen an incredible improvement in her recall. Working with Cassie has definitely changed my opinion on the efficacy of correction for certain behaviours and certain dogs. Coming back is something you need your dog to want to do, and Cassie seems simply more responsive to positive reinforcement.

In most circumstances Eddie has been much more receptive to correction, and learned our “house rules” very quickly. He also usually heeds my corrections at a distance. However, cats are a different story. Eddie is extremely aggressive to cats, barking and trying to chase and catch them if he can. My usual “ah-ah” has limited effect, as has a tug on the leash. I used a rattle-can, but he got quickly de-sensitized to it. Prodding him in the side has had certain effect, but for best results I have had to place myself right in front of him and stare him in the eyes while telling him off. This is quite hard to do when you have two dogs on the leash, which has meant that since I have got Cassie, his cat-aggression, which I felt I had under some control previously, has got progressively worse again. Cassie is not as excited by cats on her own, but she feeds of Eddie’s frenzy, in turn spurring him on. I have therefore recently tried the remote controlled spray collar with some very good early results.

I was reluctant to try it for a long time, as I had given it a go when I first got Eddie with almost no effect. I realize now that this was probably because he was just out of kennels, and I used it in the park where there were lots of squirrels about. At that stage, Eddie was just too excited and overwhelmed by all the stimuli around him. Now he is far more receptive to me in general, and I am hoping for a better result with the collar. On the few occasions I have used it this time, he has immediately stopped barking and straining for the cat, stepped back and looked at me. I am hoping that repetition will give me a longer-term effect, where the simple “ah-ah” suffices to deter him. I will report back on my progress.

So, I am still learning about correction, when and what works, and when it doesn’t. I would be very interested to hear your experiences, views and opinions on this topic. Please comment below or email

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Johnnie said...

I love the tip about training your dog to lie down before feeding so they lie down when they want food. Genius. I also like the point you made about dogs having no moral code, so correction rather than punishment is the way to go. Can't wait to read more. I am a new follower. Great blog. Blessings...
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Sherry said...

I think we all keep learning about correction and reinforcement (or should) because each dog is different. Miro and Alanis sit for food and treats; but if Miro is curious about something I'm holding, he'll stand on his hind legs a few inches away. He knows he's not supposed to jump on me, so he has adopted this tactic. We're still working on it!

houndstooth said...

I think you have to find the right balance between reinforcement and correction for every dog. I look at our current dogs, and I know that the minute you correct Blueberry for something, she shuts down, goes to her crate and is done. She is just so sensitive, she won't work if she thinks she's upset you. If you pull out treats, though, she will keep working as long as she thinks she's making you happy. Bunny will handle mild correction, and works great for treats, too, as long as they're something she feels is worth working for. Buddy Bears are not worth working for in the princess' opinion! Morgan takes a lot of correction, and she'll work for treats, but doesn't really care about treats. She'll work to make you happy, and accept the treats as a reward.

I'm wondering if, with Eddie, if you rewarded him after he stopped and looked back at you if you'd get even faster results. He might learn to see the cat, and then look to you for guidance.

E.A. said...

Thanks for the comments guys. We can certainly all agree, I think, that every dog is different and it pays to adapt to the personality of each dog.

Re: rewarding Eddie - good idea, I tried it yesterday. But he didn't want the treat. He is still excited by the cat, he just knows I don't want him to go to it. I will keep offering him a reward though for ignoring the cat. Maybe he will learn to appreciate the treat in time...