Why I won't teach you to correct a dog

I started learning about dog training when I was 17 using off-the-shelf books and information from TV professionals. I’m now 33 and have dedicated these 16 years to becoming the best dog trainer possible. I have a long way to go, but my time learning has not been insignificant.

In the beginning I trained in the way advocated in the books and programmes I was exposed to and approached the issue from the perspective of what was right and what was wrong for my dog to be doing. If my dog was wrong I put him right. If he was right I praised him, played with a toy or fed him. I was doing my best to be a responsible owner and bring the best out of my boy.

In memory of Rex, my best boy

In memory of Rex, my best boy

The problem was that he lunged, barked and looked ready to bite people. And he was a large-ish dog, black and athletic in build- a german-shepherd/Labrador crossbreed- pretty powerful and scary-looking. I rescued him and tried to make his life good. His behaviour was extreme though, so the vet recommended euthanasia. I did not accept this and so she prescribed him beta blockers and instructed me to keep him muzzled in public.

What kind of corrections did I use? A lead jerk, a shove with my hand or knee, a jab with my fingers to his neck, a “no”. I would startle him out of an unwanted action, perhaps by shouting “AH!” then insist he sat down. I asked him for A LOT of sits and lie downs, poor boy.  One time, he bit me because I corrected him and I was so upset because it felt like a betrayal. Now I understand that he was caught between a rock (stranger) and a hard place (me) and I had made his situation extremely stressful. He couldn’t always eat treats in a stranger-situation because he was too overwhelmed, and my training methods were partly responsible.

I learned that I could often hide Rex’s reaction to strangers therefore I believed the method worked. But it was never quite gone and could reappear “out of the blue”. I remember his face when he was scared and shocked by me, and the lost and stuck expression when he could barely think for stress and all his options were shit. At the time I was following advice from dog trainers I respected.

I’m telling you this because I want you to understand I can make your dog walk past strangers and dogs without barking or lunging out. This is relatively easy to do, even with large and powerful breeds that can look “psycho” towards dogs or people. I can do that using quite basic equipment or we could use fancier things that squeeze, choke, pinch, shock, smoosh or contort your dog’s face or body. You know me as Lucy who is cheerful, enthusiastic and fun. But you’ll have to believe me that I can scare a dog with a look, let alone if I raise my voice. I can force your dog to walk quietly past another dog. I could teach you to do the same. But I won’t.

Every day of the week students come to me who have used rattle bottles, sprays, chains and choke collars. They’ve been instructed by another professional how to use their voice and actions to stop their dog from doing the undesired behaviour. And now they’re coming to me and the issue has grown worse because the aggression has intensified and/or more generalized. It’s even more unfortunate because not only is the problem bigger it is also more difficult to treat now your dog’s confidence is damaged, his trust in you and his explosive emotional response are heavily established. I “fix” these dogs. I don’t want yours to become one of them.

Why do people try using startle and correction techniques?

I think the answer is multifaceted. In no particular order I believe the reasons include:

  • It feels justified. Your dog has behaved “wrongly” and as a caring responsible owner it is natural to point out to them that they are wrong. It feels common sense that this would teach your dog to do “right”

  • A professional has given you these techniques, your friend uses them, you read it in a book or saw it on Tv. Keep in mind that dog training and behaviour industry is not regulated and you will see/hear a lot of inaccurate and harmful information. Perhaps you were brought up with a no-nonsense approach and apply that sense to dog-ownership.

  • You are frustrated and angry. Your dog doesn’t seem to be improving and is jerking on your body. He may have hurt you. Members of the public are judging you and you want to appear like you’re taking action. After all the time and effort you’ve put in to your canine friend, it feels that he’s taking the piss. You feel better for lashing out. He jerks on you, you jerk on him, shout and look angry as hell.

  • It seems to be effective. You provide an unpleasant consequence and your dog breaks off from his behaviour and looks to you, perhaps getting all soppy and seeming to “know he was wrong”. After a few experiences your dog avoids engaging with the trigger and you conclude that the problem is over.  

 

Why isn’t it effective?

  • Your dog will desensitize or habituate to the correction. This means over time you will need to make it more shocking, scary or painful.

  • If the trigger is aggravating or scary enough, your dog will lash out anyway. On balance, if the trigger is worse in your dog’s mind than you or the rattle/chain/spray, he will do it anyway and suffer the consequences.

  • You’ve set up a situation where you are scary to your pet. You might think that the rattle bottle or whatever is not scary, it’s just a startle response, right? Think back on when you’ve been startled in the past. Imagine being startled by the same person regularly and how this would affect you.

  • Startling a dog ‘flares up’ their nervous system. Putting your dog on edge is the opposite of what you want. To have reliable sensible behaviour in future your dog’s system needs to feel soothed and level.

  • To the untrained eye your dog looks fine. What your dog is actually doing is avoiding the trigger and your displeasure. This is stressful for your dog. Maybe that’s okay for you because your walks are enjoyable again. But this is not the case for your dog.

  • Stress over time causes illness in your pet. If you want a long-term solution and a long-lived, vital dog, correction training is not your friend.

  • You’ve spent time teaching your dog to avoid the problem. You never taught him what to do. Now the problem might be hidden but not overcome. Therefore, it’s always just below the surface waiting to reappear.

  • Dogs become nervous of learning if you use corrections. The worry about making a mistake overpowers the pleasure of seeking rewards like treats or games. Your dog knows you might “go off” any moment and loses confidence in themselves and their ability to make good choices. You will be managing your dog for life because they haven’t learned to manage themselves.

 

Empowering dogs for long-term success

My aim is to teach your dog to make good choices with your support and independently. I want your dog to enjoy life and their time with you. I want them to behave appropriately and to live a long and healthy life, free from fear and worry. This is done using non-permissive reinforcement training ie we keep your dog safe and prevent errors whilst nurturing desirable choices. Thankfully for Rex I discovered modern training methods a few years in to keeping him and they helped tremendously. Since then I’ve helped many out of control and dangerous dogs and my regret is not finding better methods sooner.

I hope this post gives you some insight into where I’m coming from when I ask you to ditch using a rattle, chain or lead jerk. These actions seem innocuous at first so my response might be disappointing to you. I’ve studied this subject practically and academically for 16 years and I hope you will believe me that I only have your dog’s interest at heart.

Let me reassure you that I know what dogs look like when they lose control and I believe you that your dog is terrifying when they get going. I don’t need to see your dog in that condition to judge whether correction is the best way to proceed. If you’re ready we can manage and teach your dog together for long term success that lasts.

 

Living with dogs is a journey and I hope by sharing my stories you will avoid the sadness I feel at recalling the days when I was a less effective and accidentally-unkind trainer.

 

With the memory of Rex in my heart

 

Happy dog training,


Love from Lucy x