“I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do.”

“I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do. Or when he knows he’s doing wrong.”

For clarity’s sake, a correction would be some kind of (at best) unpleasant action taken to enforce a behavior or stop a behavior.

It’s something I hear all too often. But unless your dog can actually tell you in words that he actually understands what you’re asking of him, don’t assume! Dogs aren’t humans and they lack our human logic and reasoning skills. They learn a lot like us, but they also differ in some key ways. They lack our morals too, by the way. The concept of “right” and “wrong” is a human concept, largely determined by society. To hold a dog to our belief that they grasp that concept would be anthropomorphic.

There are a LOT of reasons for non-compliance that a correction won’t even begin to address.

And if the choice to comply wasn’t conditioned to be reinforcing enough, that is trainer error too. A positive reinforcer is a tool, and any tool needs to be utilized correctly.

Unless you know better, it’s too easy to hold animals to a human standard of doing things. But they’re not humans. We need to remember that.

Many a trainer who advocates and uses corrections will tell you that the dog “knew better” and the correction was justified. But there’s something many of these trainers have in common; a willful lack of an education in their field.

Some trainers feel that experience alone should be enough. I’ll share a secret with you, sometimes I make the same clueless mistakes over and over again, until I learn different. With experience alone, there’s nothing to prevent this from occurring. And at your dog’s expense.

It’s widely accepted by most people that an education is beneficial to your efforts. Because, scientia potentia est! Knowledge is power! It’s the lack of ignorance. What is a professional in the field of animal behavior doing without an education in their specialty anyways? Without knowing the science and theory behind behavior, the why’s, the how’s, and the what’s behind what’s occurring, more mistakes that could easily have been avoided can be made at your pet’s expense, as well as your own.

Here’s an example:

Trainer A. puts Spike through his obedience paces. First they work on downs, then sits, then leaving cats alone. The session soon goes downhill. Spike started off well enough, but he was never taught duration for the down and sit behavior, nor was he taught these behaviors in different settings and situations before taking it on the road. Spike gets confused and makes a lot of mistakes. Also, Spike is started at a proximity to cats where he’s not in control of himself, and it takes many corrections to get him to stop trying to go for the cat.  This session didn’t set Spike up for success, in my opinion, it was a failure.

Trainer B. puts Sophie through her obedience paces. First they work on leaving cats alone. Sophie is started at a proximity where she notices the cat but is still easily in control of herself. She gets moved progressively closer as she accomplishes self control at each progression. Then they take a break. Then they work on downs, Sophia is taught duration, and is taught the behavior in many different settings and situations. Then a short break. Then they work on sits, and the same goes as it did for learning downs. The session started out well and ended well. Progress never flagged. This session set Sophie up for success, in my opinion. This session was a success.

Why was there such a glaring difference between these two scenarios? Trainer B. has experience AS WELL as an education and can apply her learned knowledge to her training. Trainer B. knows that the research strongly suggests that humans, as well as dogs, have limited amounts of self control that must A. Be well rewarded and B. Allowed time to recharge. Trainer B. also knows that in order for Sophia to succeed, she must be working at a level where this is easily possible before progressing onwards. You don’t learn to run before you learn to walk. Trainer B. is aware of thresholds, a neutral or near neutral level of exposure to a stimuli that can be tolerated. And further more, Trainer B. also knows that dogs need to have criteria (the different components of a behavior like degree of difficult, duration, distance, amount of reinforcement, and so on) split, and they also need the behaviors generalized to different settings and situations. Dog generally do not generalize behaviors well. This needs to be taught.

I’m not a nurse. I don’t have an education in health care. Nurses have the expertise that I lack. That’s what I’m paying a health care professional for! I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to shell out my hard earned money for a professional, I want my money’s worth! I would want a dog trainer who would understand what went wrong, if it happens to occur, and was able to set my dog up for success in order to constructively address the actual cause behind the failure. The goal shouldn’t be to set the dog up for failure when you train. In fact, the goal we should be striving for is called errorless learning. Why practice unnecessary mistakes that we can easily avoid? But just as dogs are dogs, humans are humans, and therefore, we’re not always exempt from mistakes, no matter how careful we may be.

Let’s explore why it’s not safe to just assume that your dog “knew better”. Please take a moment to view some video examples that explore the possibilities behind your dog not complying with what you’ve asked of him, or otherwise behaving in an undesired way. And then ask yourself, would issuing a correction have been beneficial, or even relevant for that matter? How might you have instead addressed the learning deficit?

Elieenanddogs presents a series of four videos where a dog misses cues (traditionally known as commands).

This dog is uncomfortable and fearful of the grooming process. He doesn’t understand that grooming is necessary for his hygiene. He is put over threshold (how much of the stimulus he can handle without reacting) and then is corrected in order to try to control him. Mr. Millan grabs the dog’s head to stop the behavior, but the dog won’t stop biting at the brush so he has to resort to putting a muzzle on, because he can’t figure out how else to get the grooming done.

You can fast forward to 10:10 to see this in action.

The corrections don’t change the dog’s fear for the better, it will only compound the dog’s dear. This can either cause the dog to shut down, or continue fighting. Shutting down  is not “calm”, as Cesar Millan often claims on his shows.

Dr. Sophia Yin, a board certified Veterinary Behaviorist, shows a dog with a similar problem, yet Dr. Yin shows how a qualified behavior professional might handle the situation. She pairs what the dog finds unpleasant (grooming), with something that the dog really enjoys (food). The dog is shown over threshold at the beginning for demonstration purposes (most people wouldn’t believe the dog fights grooming unless seen with their own eyes), but as you can see with the counter conditioning procedure, the dog is kept under threshold so that he doesn’t need to be corrected in order to keep him under control.

She enables the dog to become familiar with being brushed and also conditions a positive emotional response to it via what’s known as desensitization and counter conditioning.

In case you’re wondering, Dr. Yin is not rewarding the dog for being fearful. There is a science behind behavior, and those who have studied it will know how to handle situations in a constructive and relevant way.

Here Dr. Yin has a video and an explanation on why counter conditioning doesn’t reward fear.


There are many, many reasons why a dog may not do what you ask. Your dog may not be ready for practicing recall in a high distraction environment if you haven’t built up to it. This is called lumping criteria. Your dog may not sit without a treat if you’ve used food incorrectly and turned it into a bribe. Your dog may have forgotten some of their skills through lack of practice. These examples, and the examples shown in this blog, are just a few of the many reasons why a dog may fail to do as expected.

Here is a perfect example of a trainer assuming that a dog “is very sniffy” and just isn’t paying attention. So he corrects the dog for this behavior.

What this trainer doesn’t seem to know is that excessive ground sniffing is a displacement behavior! A displacement behavior is brought on by stress, designed to appease the other individual and direct their attention else where. This dog wants to show that he’s busy minding his own business by sniffing the ground and doesn’t want any trouble and isn’t a threat to anybody. However, the dog isn’t even allowed to communicate his stress. He’s punished for it.

You can be sure this is stress by looking at the rest of the dog’s body language. His ears are held low and far back on his head, his head is lowered, he’s walking in a semi-crouch to appear as small as possible, his tail is semi-tucked, and his eyes are very squinty.

You may be able to suppress the ground sniffing by correcting the dog for it, but you do nothing, except to often compound the emotional state, that’s causing the behavior. What good does this do? At best, the dog just gives in and continues to be stressed. At worst, the dog’s stress builds until he reaches a breaking point and puts those sharp teeth to use.

Note that I don’t think that this trainer is malicious, I just don’t think that he’s armed with the pertinent information to know what is going on behind the motions.

Just putting a dog through the motions, without understanding what’s underneath, is more like puppeteering than actual teaching. But we’re dog trainers, not puppeteers. We’re being hired to teach your animals.

A behavior professional who is both educated and experienced will be armed with the pertinent knowledge needed and will be less likely to blame and punish the dog when they’re not at fault.

However, while a dog might very well know better, the likelihood that that’s the case, in my professional opinion, is very small and the dog more than likely hasn’t been set up for success in the way that he’s been taught. But we can change that. Instead of using corrections that doesn’t really address the underlying issue and serve any real purpose, we can train better and set up dogs up for a higher rate of success.

3 thoughts on ““I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do.”

  1. Pingback: For those sitting on the fence as to training - Page 8 - Poodle Forum - Standard Poodle, Toy Poodle, Miniature Poodle Forum ALL Poodle owners too!

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