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Training Dogs With Reinforcement and Corrections


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Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is necessary for the learning process. A dog that is continually told ‘no’ will become desensitized to it and begin to ignore your reprimands. Rewards should consist mainly of praise and affection, but could also occasionally include treats, new toys, or even a favorite game. Always reward the correct response or behavior in order to facilitate learning. And while you shouldn’t be stingy with your praise, you also shouldn’t overdo it. If you continually praise your dog for no reason, your dog will not be able to distinguish desired behavior from daily activities.

Reprimands such as hitting or other physical punishments are ineffective methods of training and are never recommended in any situation. Such methods only create dogs that are wary, frightened, or aggressive without producing the desired behavior. The proper use of your voice can be an effective reprimand. A sharp ‘no’ will grab your dog’s attention and discourage the inappropriate response. However in some cases with some dogs, a simple ‘no’ is just not enough. There is still no need to resort to violence.

“Understanding Corrections” is an excellent article by Connie Cleveland that teaches proper reinforcement when voice reprimands aren’t enough. If negative reinforcement must be used, it shouldn’t be so forceful as to cause fear in your pet. At the same time, it has to cause some discomfort, or at the very least annoyance, otherwise it will be ineffective. Cleveland describes a proper correction as a pull on the leash, a pinch on the ear, or anything else that your dog finds offensive. You will have to experiment with your dog to find exactly what works best – which may just be a stern “Fido!” – to bring your dog to attention. A correction is not a mindless yank on your dog’s leash. Your dog must understand the purpose of the yank, or he will stay just as confused and frustrated as a dog that isn’t trained. According to Cleveland, proper use of corrections will result in a dog that understands how to stop the correction and what to do to prevent it from occurring again.

Training Dogs to Pay Attention!

The first step to successful training is teaching your dog to pay attention to you. Before he can learn, Fido’s eyes need to be looking into your eyes. You may need to kneel down to his level to eliminate a height difference in small breeds. Get him in a sitting position and use a treat to get his attention. Keep the treat between your face and his and praise him when he looks at you. If he looks away or gets up, stop talking to him. Only offer praise for the desired behavior – paying attention. Cleveland suggests that the next time your dog looks away, “pop the leash straight up,” gauging the force of the pull by your own dog’s reaction. You must do it hard enough to get your dog’s immediate response, but not so hard as to frighten or hurt your pet.

Cleveland’s training article lists several possible responses to the correction and the proper adjustment the owner should make. For instance, your dog may jump up, thinking that you pulled on the leash because you wanted him to move. Truly a good guess on your dog’s part, however it is still the wrong answer. Push him back into a sitting position and raise his head to look at you. Then praise him for looking at you – the desired behavior. Or he may bow his head, preparing for the next pull. This requires the same response on your part: raise his head to look at you and praise him. “Good Fido!” If he doesn’t respond at all to the correction, then you didn’t offend him with it and need to pull harder.

Cleveland warns that some dogs feel the pull, but do nothing anyway. Yanking harder for this type of response will only create confusion and fear. The goal of correction-based training is twofold. Your dog should:

  1. Know how to stop the correction by using the correct behavior and
  2. How to avoid the correction by paying attention even with distractions.

After you have achieved the desired behavior, you can try this same lesson while standing in front of your dog, beside him, and in the heel position.

If your dog doesn’t respond appropriately to the correction, it is possible that he is still making an effort, but is just providing an incorrect response. Cleveland calls this an effort error. An example of an effort error is if your dog jumps up when you pull the leash. He may think that you want him to move, which is an attempt at obeying you, even though an incorrect response.

Correction Alternatives

We do not condone abuse for any reason. We do not believe that making your dog fearful of you is any way to train. Corrections are meant to get your dog’s attention, not hurt or scare him. You know your dog best. If you feel that a pull on his leash will scare him, then don’t do it! You are your pet’s guardian and caretaker. You are his safe person. If your dog does not respond to a sharp tone of voice, and you feel that he would be fearful of corrections, then you may want to look into other alternatives.

Squirt bottles and shake cans have been used in dog training, although some feel that these methods are cruel. The squirt of water may be such a shock that your dog may avoid the task altogether or only repeats the behavior when you are away. This is not only an ineffective training method; it also causes your dog to be scared of you. The shake can creates the same surprise that might result in fear, although Brandy J. Oliver, author of “Correcting Dogs: (alternatives for) Punishment with Shake Cans & Squirt Guns” feels that the shake can is the gentler method if used sparingly. It is difficult to get the attention of some dogs, and a loud noise is effective. A shake can (or a clap or whistle) works great as long as the dog does not perceive it as a threat.

Oliver recommends an alternative to these questionable methods in the form of clicker-training. This scientific training method was developed to train dolphins and has become a widely discussed canine training method. Instead of focusing on improper behavior, the trainer looks for the desired behavior and “clicks” it using a small clicking device. Praise follows the click. Each time the dog stumbles upon the correct behavior, the trainer clicks and praises. Clicker training requires a great deal of patience. You must wait for the dog to perform the correct behavior. You do not demonstrate the desired behavior, and you ignore wrong responses. Karen Pryor writes in “What is Clicker Training?” that “click by click, you ‘shape’ longer sits… until you have the final results you want.” Pryor claims that dogs quickly learn that the marker signal means that they are doing something right.

Other trainers applaud the clicker method of training when used as a secondary reinforcement in conjunction with other training techniques. Kathleen Weaver describes using the clicker (or blowing a whistle, clucking your tongue, snapping your fingers, or any other noise) along with food rewards in her article entitled “Clicker Training.” Before you begin obedience training, you have to teach your dog “that the clicker is always followed by a reward.” To teach this lesson, feed your dog a treat and click simultaneously. Do this numerous times, sometimes varying the time between click and food. Be sure that the click always comes first. Soon, whenever Fido hears the click, he’ll stop whatever he’s doing to receive his reward.

At this point, it’s time to start obedience training. Begin to click for desired behavior, sitting calmly, perhaps. You want your dog to hold the behavior until the reward is offered, so slowly extend the time between click and reward. Eventually, you will be able to replace the food reward with praise alone. Also, the positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily need to be food. Weaver points out that some dogs don’t respond well to food and others are distracted by it. Use whatever positive reinforcement to which your dog responds.

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