Over time, we have become desensitized to the dangers all around us. When you think about it, the world is a menacing place. While we are growing up, our parents and community have to teach us how to exist safely within it.
When you bring dogs into your life, they open us up to so many fun experiences and activities that it’s easy to forget how vital we are to their overall development and safety. It’s up to us to make sure they are aware of how dangerous the world can be; otherwise, they’ll have to take their chances and find out the hard way.
What is a Correction?
The definition, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is as follows:
Correct (Verb) - a. To make or set right; b. To alter or adjust so as to bring to some standard or required condition
A correction, then, is the act that makes something right. Basically, we are referring to teaching a dog what NOT to do along with information that often suggests what to do instead. It’s important to help a dog understand what is expected of her and to get her to want to make good choices. Depending on what the dog has already been taught, a correction could be distributed to simply stop an unwanted behavior/choice with no concern for the alternative choice that the dog makes, or can be distributed with information that not only stops the behavior but navigates the dog towards making the more appropriate choice.
How Nature Corrects
Automobiles, venomous snakes (and other predators), aggressive dogs and even ill-intended people. What do they all have in common? They each represent a huge danger to your dog, which could result in expensive surgery or even death.
Getting hit by a car for running into the street, bitten by snake, attacked by another dog, are natural ways for your dog to learn what not to do. And they’re expensive lessons. On a severity scale of 1- 10 (10 being the most severe), correcting your dog manually would rate far lower than nature’s substitute.
Nature is harsh. That includes the wilderness, where there are real predators, as well as the urban version we have created. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the real jungle or the concrete jungle; you’re responsible for teaching your dog how to navigate through it safely.
If you think about it, we get corrected all the time. Our lights turn off if we don’t pay our bill; we miss appointments if we sleep in; we burn our food if we don’t take it out from the oven in time. There are always consequences, and they help us learn.
As an alternative, one might say what happens if you only reward the good behavior and ignore the bad? Well, what if everything was like that? Imagine a job where you’re only praised for what you do correctly, and no one says anything when you’re wrong. You’d end up assuming you’re always doing a good job. Yes, you might strive for that recognition, but the rest of the time, you’re confidently moving along while making a ton of mistakes. Eventually, you would get fired because you’re costing the company money.
There needs to be repercussions for the wrong behavior. Otherwise, how can we improve? Dogs and people learn based on the reactions to their actions and, with canines, these need to be immediate. It’s a learning theory called operant conditioning which literally translates into “learning by consequences”.
Learning through Operant Conditioning
In our last post, we introduced you to it, and we’ll go a little more in depth here (without trying to lecture). The basic premise is that the consequences of a behavior determine its likelihood of being repeated. The outcomes can either increase the frequency of the behavior (reinforcement) or decrease it (punishment). When we add something to this process, it’s considered positive (+) and, when we take something away, it’s negative (-).
Therefore, we can have four different scenarios: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. If you’re already confused, we understand, but maybe the following examples will help. Try to play along and see if you can guess which quadrant each example represents.
Your boss gives you a bonus because you took the initiative in a big project.
The vehicle that you drive is making a dinging noise because you do not have your seatbelt on, but will turn off once you put your seatbelt on.
You’re in grade school, and your parents don’t let you go to the sleepover with your friends because you failed your last test.
You get pulled over and fined for speeding ( Note that the road that you were driving on had multiple speed limit signs, making you aware of the speed limit prior to the speeding ticket).
Did you guess which one was which? Here are the answers:
Positive reinforcement. Your boss added something in order to increase the chances of you doing it again.
Negative reinforcement. Once the seatbelt is put on, the noise will turn off. This increases the likelihood of the pattern being repeated.
Negative punishment. Your parents removed something (the experience with your friends) so that you would not fail another test.
Positive punishment. The police officer added something in order to decrease the probability of you repeating the activity.
With dogs, the same approach can be used with giving treats, leash pressure, withholding treats and, finally, corrections. When you combine all the quadrants of operant conditioning, you can teach your dog to be an ideal citizen.
Why We Correct Our Dogs
We use corrections (positive punishment) as an essential part of the learning process. Without positive punishment, the only choice we are left with is negative punishment. And that doesn’t really work unless the dog really wants what you are removing and is somewhat aware that their choices affect the world around them. Only applying negative punishment requires a level of understanding and logic that can be difficult to communicate to the dog. If you take something away from her, like a favorite toy or treat, she needs to understand why you’re doing it. A perfect example is when you withhold treats from a food motivated dog, and she keeps trying different actions until she finally gets a treat for the desired one.
It’s perfect for trick training but doesn’t necessarily teach impulse control. What happens when she’s chasing a tennis ball, and it goes out into the street? I hope you’re there to correct her before nature does it for you.