I have always used positive reinforcement to train dogs, even when I was young, using doggy chocs to train my Jack Russell puppy. I remember saying sit, sit, sit, over and over, and when he finally sat, I gave him a treat. It never occurred to me to physically push him to get him in to the position I wanted. I love this method of training.
Since I use positive reinforcement so much, does that mean I do not use corrections or punishments with my dogs? The answer is, no. I do not believe you can raise a dog without telling him what is unwanted sometimes. I do use corrections, but there are a few guidelines I have.
Corrections should never be painful, or harmful to your dog to have them pay attention. It can be as simple as an ‘ah, ah’ followed by what you want your dog to do. Such corrections and instructions, if well timed, can be very constructive in stopping unwanted behaviour. However, I find that these corrections only work if your dog is receptive to you, that is, that they are not too distracted or over aroused. You will have to pick and choose your times to use these corrections.
Using corrections takes timing. Your corrections should be quick, at best they should occur as you dog is considering performing the behaviour. If you wait for too long before correcting your dog they will have no idea what you are trying to correct them for. At worst, they may think that they are being corrected for ‘groveling’ to you. Your dog will have no idea why you are cross, just that you are cross about something, that is all they are reacting to.
You should only give corrections when you are calm. If you find you are giving corrections when things have already got out of hand, you are behaving reactively to a situation, when tensions may already be high. Corrections should be proactive and used sparingly. It is a myth to think that corrections need to be given when in the heat of the moment, this could be the worst time for them, as people tend to overreact when emotional, and the correction may be way too harsh for the crime.
When using corrections you should do your best to set your dog up for success. It is not about setting your dog up for a mistake, and correcting his behaviour. That is not fair, your dog may have to make too many mistakes, that you need to punish, before they find the correct behaviour. It is best to simply instruct them on what to do. For example if your dog loves to steal food off the bench a well timed ‘ah ah’ followed by ‘leave it’ or ‘sit’ or ‘on your bed’ will give them constructive direction.
An effective correction should work straight away. If you are telling your dog, ‘No!’ five times, at ever increasing volumes, you can bet your correction is not working. The consequence of this is that your corrections will have to increase in severity before your dog pays attention. Where will it end?
I use time outs with my dogs, not as punishment, but as a way of diffusing the situation quickly and easily. These time outs are not designed to make my dogs ‘think’ about what they have done, they simply give us some space from each other. Often though, it makes me think of what has occurred, and how I can stop it from occurring again. In the end the responsibility lies with me.
The key to using time out effectively is that you need to be aware of your own emotions, and the frame of mind you are in. When using time out, again, it should be carried through in a calm way, do not wait until your dog has pushed all of your buttons and you have completely lost it. All time out is, is a little bit of time and space to be separate, time to take a deep breath, and relax.
We all get angry and frustrated at times, our dogs do too, avoid using corrections at this time. Be proactive, anticipate wrong behaviour, and be instructional about what you want your dog to do for you. Later, take some time to think about what happened before you had to correct your dog, and resolve not to set them up for this again. Use your corrections sparingly, and they will be subtle and mean something to your dog. Just like ‘the look’ we all used to get from our parents.