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What is a correction?

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In the dog world, the phrase “to correct” is controversial   Many dog trainers argue that there’s nothing wrong with ‘correcting’ a dog because you’re simply showing him how to be correct.  I’ve seen entire blogs written to justify the use of the word, and its application in dog training, by referring to the root of the word “correct” – to make right. I know that I appreciate it when someone corrects my work to help me improve.

If a correction is designed to make the dog correct, why does it often look like the dog is being made sorry rather than being made right? 

This reminds me of a phase in my life where saying something was “bad” really meant that it was “good”.  Cool.  The meaning of the word changed, and only a person in a closet would have failed to notice that change.  As a result, we accepted the changed word and we used the original meaning with care to avoid a misunderstanding.

Is it possible that the current meaning of the word “correct” has changed from “being made right” to “applying unpleasant consequences?” I’m talking about the dog world; not the common usage of the word (we are talking about dogs here, aren’t we?).

If you cannot decide for yourself if the meaning of the word has changed, then I’d like to suggest a fairly simple test to help you get calibrated.

You’ll need three things.  A dog making a mistake, a trainer applying a correction, and a five year old.

While the five year old is observing, “correct” the dog for making a mistake.   Then ask the child, “is the dog happy now that I showed him how to be correct?”

If the five year old looks at you like you’ve grown a second head, then you may wish to acknowledge that the root meaning of the word and the common usage of the word are no longer the same.

Lets call a spade a spade. A  correction means to make the dog sorry so that they will  perform differently the next time.  If you are showing a dog how to perform correctly, then don’t call it a correction.  You are “showing”,”teaching” or “training” the dog.  And if you are really trying to help the dog, then whatever you are doing should look like help to the random five year old.

Regardless of how you feel about corrections in training, isn’t it better to use language that is clear and descriptive of what is really happening?

I’ve seen people jerk their dogs all over the place in the name of dog training.  I’ve seen dogs cowering away from their owners and other run away in fear.  I’ve seen dogs pee and roll on their backs as their trainer approached.  I’m sure each of those individuals would say they were ‘correcting’ the dog, and many of them would subscribe to the usage of the word that I began with – that they were making the dog right.

I’ve yet to hear someone say they were abusing their dog.  So, in the interest of clarity, if we are truly showing our dogs how to perform and we care how they feel about their work, we should eliminate the use of the word “correction” from our vocabularies and substitute onother, less tainted word, in it’s place.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

41 responses »

  1. I cringe when people refer to fun matches as “correctionals” or “correction clinics”

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  2. Egad … correction clinic??? Thank you, Denise, for calling out the truth here. I was an English major in an earlier life, and I tend to use words pretty precisely. Technically, I have no problem with the idea of a correction, in the original and dictionary meaning of the word. When a dog is fairly well along a learning curve, and does something that isn’t what I’ve asked for, I’ll put forth a “nope” sometimes, and give her another chance to make it right; that’s my idea of a correction. But I could have nightmares over the fear instilled in generations of dogs through the years in the name of correction. Knowing what the word has come to mean to too many people, I have started trying to use the word “feedback” and just hope THAT doesn’t get twisted!

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  3. Wonder how much ‘correction’ it would take to get trainer/handlers to do the work ‘right’ to start with and to teach slowly, consistently, and check in with their dog? Dogs are perfect at being dogs and they learn so quickly – why is it they seem to – um – ‘need’ correction from some handlers? It’s not willful disobedience, or disobedience at all but a lack of interest in some activity that’s not serving them or making them happy when something else looks more enticing, I think. Why can’t we, as handlers, recognize our lack of clarity and/or consistency in our work with them?

    I see it in my own 2 VERY different dogs – both happy to work with me (I think) – but when they’re tired, or having an off day, or my tone/character is off from who they want to work with, they perform lots of actions that they’d get ‘corrected’ for with others. Sometimes, I realize I need to back off, do some fun things with them, teach some random trick or something else b/s what is making them uncomfortable.

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  4. Denise, I just love how you train dogs~ just sad that some people still don’t get it? Makes training so much more fun for all parties involved!
    Truth hurts folks…….

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  5. As a language person, I find this topic fascinating. I would agree that in common parlance “correction” means punishment. Since we have the very useful and clearly defined four quadrants of positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment, I am inclined to use those terms, since I know what they mean. On the other hand, if I say that I have “punished” my dog, your average person is unlikely to imagine that what I mean is that I have trotted away and given a treat to my imaginary dog Fred, although that’s a pretty likely scenario for what I have done. (Thanks, Denise!) But I love the concept of including the words positive and negative feedback in the training vocabulary. Punishment reduces behavior. Reinforcement increases behavior. Positive feedback lets a dog know they are on the right track and reinforcement is likely. Negative feedback lets a dog know that they are on the wrong track, and that reinforcement in unlikely. I use the word “good” to let my dog know that I like what she’s doing, but I want her to keep going. I’m not as consistent on a negative feedback marker, but, for instance, if she brings me back the wrong scent article I will turn away from her and say calmly “I don’t want that one. Find it.” If she misses a weave pole entry I might say “oops” and pull her out to try again. Pure clicker trainers are not generally big on this kind of feedback, but I think for sports where dogs have to make choices it’s useful to let them know as immediately as possible if they’ve made the wrong choice.

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  6. What an interesting thread of thought! But we have to remember here that we are dealing with us human handlers who mostly grew up in schools where “corrections” were always clearly defined by negative input when we made mistakes on math or english exams or other subjects and saw all of those red marks when we got our test papers or compositions back. We usually learned from our mistakes and survived all of those “red ink” corrections. We DID eventually get better. But bottom line was that it was generally pretty painful getting to that “better” spot. So it seems to me, it’s understandably hard for us to re-learn a positive connotation of the word “correction” well enough to pass on to our dogs in training.when we are having to re-teach this whole concept to our own selves at the same time too!

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  7. Brilliant insight as usual – my biggest pet peeve with people who call them selves balanced trainers is that mostly they don’t seem to want to call a spade a spade. Even the term balance would make you think that there would be an equilibrium between pleasant and unpleasant consequences – this is rarely the case.

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    • For years I used the word balance and can’t anymore because it’s been tainted to mean a balance of rewards with punishments. I used it to mean if the reinforcement history is very strong on “this side” you need to balance the reinforcement history on the other side. For example, if the dog is so crazy to run out to get his dumbbell, you need to bump up the reinforcement on the staying side. To me the opposite of a reward/reinforcement is no reward, not a punishment. It’s getting really hard to talk about training period. Vocabulary is a very importable and tricky thing!

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  8. Yesterday marked the beginning of 8 month old Toby’s collar conditioning. Do I call what I am doing in this work “showing him how to be correct”? No. I call what I am doing explaining to him that when I give a command he should view that as more relevant than the bumper he wants to fetch. But I don’t want to have to say “showing him that I am more relevant than his self reinforcing activity”. Instead I want to say that I am “correcting” him.

    Why am I doing this instead of being patient and using positive reinforcement? Because my time is limited by my other responsibilities which I will not outline here. Because I value the ability to quickly take Toby for a run and exercise and know that he will be safe and not run into the street over his short term comfort.

    Would I rather strap the ecollor around my own neck and apply the same correction to myself if it would have the same effect? Yes.

    Do I want to take the chance that exercising him with a long line, patience and cookies will be better? Up until Monday that is the option I was choosing. At that point my fingers were burned and could have been broken when he did not listen to my “come” command. He could have gotten away from me and run into the street. Or I could choose to stay indoors instead of letting him exercise.

    I respect people whose lives are so under control that they can be patient and use positive reinforcement to gain their dog’s compliance. I wish that I was one of them. But I am not.

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    • I believe you are using the word correctly as it is currently viewed. This post had nothing to do with the ‘Rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of corrections, nor the reasons a person might choose to use them. The point is that corrections are unpleasant.

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      • If corrections are not unpleasant they are certainly not effective. I wish there were no unpleasant things in life, but unfortunately there are many bad things that happen thru the course of a day. I am doing my best to take an active role in teaching all of my dogs how to react correctly to their environment. Part of that role is in gradually applying aversive (painful) stimuli and helping them to understand how to control it by responding in the correct way. My hope is that this will help them to become more confident and to have a wider range of experiences opened to them. I hope that people can understand why some people choose to use force in dog training. That it is not always meanness and impatience. Sometimes it is love and a desire for them to have a full life with many wonderful experiences.

      • Robin, I think you have a good understanding of the common use of the word, and you are not resorting to euphemisms. I appreciate that, whether or not I agree with your training choices.

      • I may be misunderstanding this part of the post:

        “So, in the interest of clarity, if we are truly showing our dogs how to perform and we care how they feel about their work, we should eliminate the use of the word “correction” from our vocabularies and substitute onother, less tainted word, in it’s place.”

        I take this to mean that the fact that I am giving my dog a painful consequence for failure to comply with a known command that I am not showing my dog how to perform and I don’t care how they feel about their work. In other words, I think the statement that I quoted is implying that corrections are wrong. That is where I disagree. Have I misunderstood this statement?

      • Nope; I never said a thing in this blog – anywhere – about whether corrections are right or wrong. I said call a spade a spade. If you are doing something to the dog that is unpleasant to reduce the incidence of behavior, go ahead and call it a correction – that is the common meaning of the word, but don’t start in with euphemisms about how you are really “just making the dog correct”. If whatever you are doing does not reduce the incidence of the behavior that you are trying to eliminate, and you continue to repeat that behavior over time, then I’d call it abuse.

        When my student’s dogs do something wrong, I might say, “help your dog!” – and no one has ever misunderstood that. If whatever just happened is beyond a simple help, then I’d say “put your dog away and let’s make a training plan”. And there is no doubt in my mind that if I said “correct” your dog, then they would do something unpleasant to the dog – because that is the common usage of the word at this time, regardless of the root meaning of “to correct”.

  9. I don’t much care if the dog feels sorry, and I don’t much care whether a 5-yr old understands or approves. In the first, it’s because I’m usually more concerned with the dog’s behavior than with his internal, mental state,. In the second, it’s because I don’t think a 5 yr old is some sort of pure, natural criterion of ethical purity.

    I do care that the dog learns something and is motivated to do better. A correction of a dog’s mistake is — most of the time — the same as a correction of a schoolchild’s mistake: “No, that’s not right. Think again. Try again. Here, let’s work it out.”

    A mistake is not a moral failing. (Presumably, we’re talking about technical errors on the part of the dog, not safety violations.) I don’t want the kid or the dog to feel remorse. I want the kid or the dog to feel clarity (“Ah! Yeah, now I got it”).

    If we make “correction” a dirty word, then we’ll just have to create some other word, perhaps less elegant or less easily uttered, to convey the same meaning of helping a learner through remedying (is that a word?) an error.

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  10. I think part of the change came about when we started to use the word as a noun – ‘give the dog a correction’.

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  11. pauline hosenfeld

    another great post, Denise. And I do like Marcia’s use of the word “feedback” to describe our attempt to communicate with our dogs, that oops! it’s not that, but this. The challenge, and the joy of it when it works, is when I can give that feedback and see my dog “stay in the game”. He “hears” me say not that, and is trusting and willing to try to figure out “this.”

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  12. The word “correction” has definitely become a training land mine. Oddly enough, I feel like the current meaning of the word has changed FROM “applying unpleasant consequences” TO “being made right,” just the opposite of how you’re viewing it. Maybe it depends on the area where we live and train? I like Marcia’s idea of “feedback.” That implies help and information delivered in a constructive way that helps the dog make the right decision without the threat of pain or fear. I’d like to think that’s what we’re all striving for, no matter what we call it.

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  13. The word correction literally sends shivers up my back. Thanks for describing this all so clearly and distinctly.

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  14. I have never believed the word ‘correction’ to be a negative, though some trainers would have you think so. If a teacher corrects a paper, they are showing the student where they made a mistake. Nothing more, nothing less. If I correct a dog, I am showing the dog that one way is ‘correct’. Granted though, many people agree that a ‘correction’ really means ‘punishment.’ In my mind, it simply means to show them the correct way.

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    • Interesting – as the most common type of “correction” seems to be a collar yank or as someone described above, a stim from an e-collar. The “correction” event seems to tell the dog NOTHING about what the correct behavior is and instead is marking the incorrect behavior. So, really “correction” isn’t a very accurate term. Most “corrections” seem like they would be better described as “wrong behavior markers”.

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      • If you follow up the “yank” with the cue for the correct behaviour (eg. sit), does that then qualify it as a way to explain what is right?

    • I would suggest you change your dog to “help” if that is what you are doing.

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  15. I went to a seminar some years back given by a very accomplished trainer who believes that corrections are just about giving more information, they are not punishment. At the seminar I asked a very specific question about getting my dog to play with me. I was called up in front of the room and asked me specific questions about our history to understand our situation. But every answer I gave was wrong and each time she corrected me with how I should have answered. I was totally embarrassed standing there, not to mention I never really got an answer to my question. I subsequently observed another of her seminars, but this time I was smarter — I never raised my hand and I never asked a question. I just watched. Now when I hear somebody lament that their dog won’t try or won’t offer a behavior or is just stubborn, I think back to that seminar and how effectively I was shut down and stopped from actively participating. But I did learn a very important lesson that day about the power of corrections.

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  16. For what it’s worth, I never said anything about whether corrections were right or wrong; Simply call them what they are – unpleasant events to cause a dog to change their behavior.

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    • Would you allow that the unpleasantness can be as simple as frustration (not physical discomfort)? When using negative punishment, I am “correcting” my dog for his error, but he races back, often barking in frustraion, desperately eager to be cued to try again so he can get it right. Always reminds me of the scene in the movie “Rudy”….”I can do it, coach, I can do it!” 🙂 but it’s a correction cuz he changes his behavior on subsequent reps. And the 5 yr old would most definitely say that the dog IS having fun.

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      • I’ll touch on this. I do punish my dogs in training and I’ll call a spade a spade. I make them SORRY that they chose whichever path they might have selected. I don’t pretend that I’m helping my dog. I don’t pretend that the dog doesn’t object – it wouldn’t work if the dog didn’t object! I call it punishment rather than correction because I do not correct the dog at all; I never say a word about whatever they did that I did not like. I simply take away their opportunity to work. it works beautifully, but only if the trainer has put in the time to make the opportunity to work with the trainer quite important.

  17. Brilliant and concise, but I’m left wondering what word to replace “correction” with.

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  18. Brilliant insight. My only observation is that the term, “correction” seems to be a euphemism to begin with to soften a the more descriptive and transparent term that was used in the early days of dog training, which was “punishment.”. Unfortunately I’ve seen similar, though not physical, tactics used to “correct” contractors in the workplace — basically powerless people. In either case, I’m not convinced that this type of tactic really brings out a the individual’s ability to contribute their very best to a performance. It simply compels obedience, which in my mind is an entirely different thing. I

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  19. There has never been any question in my mind that “correction” was the euphemism applied to collar jerks and ear pinches(or whatever escalation from there). When I trained using collar corrections, I used that word. Now I don’t train using collar corrections, so I don’t use that word. (Although you cannot imagine how the devil whispered in my ear last night as my dog decided that he suddenly no longer knew how to heel without lagging. The devil did not win. I am growing up.)

    Euphemism is how we cover up an uncomfortable feeling about something through choosing words that we don’t think will trigger negative reactions in another person. For instance, this week I learned that the newest term for applying electricity to a dog’s neck(evolving from “shock” through “stimulate” and “nick” to the rather odd “stem” by Ed Frawley), is the one I heard this week when someone explained to me that what certainly looked like an ecollar on the dog they brought to my 99.8% positive class was not a shock collar: it was more like a TENS unit. Not having heard of using TENS units on dogs, I looked it up, and it appears to me that there has been another paradigm shift. There are dozens of hits when you google “dog training TENS.” It is not a shock collar any more. It is a TENS device. TENS: a medical device thought of positively by many people who associate it with solving pain problems.[I leave a small amount of room for the possibility that there really is a magic device that is different than a shock collar and like a TENS unit]. It sure looked like a shock collar to me. And I don’t have any objections to well-planned, carefully targeted use of an ecollar. I think it can be a lot more humane than some of the alternatives. My point is that it makes me cringe when people try to hide from their actions behind a veil of words. Call a spade a spade, as Denise suggests.

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  20. Mitzi Tinaglia

    “I’m sure each of those individuals would say they were ‘correcting’ the dog, and many of them would subscribe to the usage of the word that I began with – that they were making the dog right.” – Denise Fenzi

    I’m not sure that I think of a correction as making the dog right. I think of it more as communicating to the dog that they are wrong. It seems to me if you apply collar pressure so to speak (no, not a yank of a jerk are necessary) and re-sit a dog because it broke the sit, that correction is communicating that you did not want the dog to move. If they break the sit again, you will re-sit until they understand they are not to move until released. They are learning to “think”, not BE MADE RIGHT. What do they learning by their trainer making them right anyway?

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  21. Im sorry but what is this? There is nothing wrong with correcting your dog, or punishing them within reason if they are bad. They are simple creatures but they can and do learn from us and need to be taught that we are in charge and they dont run the house.

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    • I’m sorry but this way of thinking has been shown to be really faulty. Dogs aren’t trying to rule our lives or homes, they don’t think that way. Dogs are inherently selfish creatures, they are always trying to make good things happen to them and do it in whatever way works fastest (i.e. jumping up on people gets attention because even if you are pushing the dog off of you to the dog it is attention). What they think is appropriate isn’t always okay in the human world. It’s our job to shown them a better way to get something or a better way to act. Teaching them boundaries and patience is much better then correcting them or punishing them. We have a policy in our house we call “No Free Rides” meaning the dogs can get what they want but must always do something for it. They must “sit and stay” before they are greeted or fed, they must “touch” or “high five” if they want to come up on the furniture. My dogs absolutely respect me and listen extremely well but my home is a lot calmer because I am not always yelling or correcting them. They are listening because they know that’s what pays off, we are a team but I am the team captain. I am not the dictator.

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    • Dogs aren’t “bad”, they’re simply behaving…like dogs, doing what works. If they’re doing an unwanted behavior, they’re being reinforced for it in some way. If you control that reinforcement (the environment), that’s much more efficient than trying to control the dog. And I don’t think they’re such simple creatures, either. Maybe your average pet dog, that hasn’t been taught all that much, nor had all that stimulating of an existence, they can seem that way. As a partner to working dogs, I can assure you, they can be quite complex, intelligent beings. I’d call it simplistic to believe that we must teach them who’s in charge, or they’ll take over. It kind of goes without saying that we call most of the shots in a dog’s life. What they eat, where they go, when they do it. It’s actually empowering to train in a way that allows them to make choices. We use our brains to motivate them to make the choices we desire.

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  22. Entering dog training late in life, and an English grammar nut, and holding an MA in psychology, i always wondered about the word “correction” but never brought it up. I decided it was the politically correct term to make the handler feel better about himself. For what its worth, i call them interruptions, and use them mainly if i’m dealing with basic dog manners, not a particular ring sport behavior. My “interrruptions” are mainly voice, but i do use ecollar for back up intteruption while hiking in forests off leash. The interruption does not necessarily teach the dog anything, mainly its there to do what i hope and that is, stop the dog from escalating an unwanted behavior (chasing deer). Sorry, but this is the line i draw in the “positive only” training sand for the safety of my dog. I follow that by asking the dog to do something i know he is capable of (come, sit,down or heel) with lots of praise for doing it. This all being for basic dog manners and being out and about with my dog. If i’m training for something specific which he has never tried before, in a confined environment, I’m less likely to even use a voice interruption, or even a “no” and instead do what you sugget, help the dog…the bottom line is, you are right. They are far from corrections. To me, they are interruptions.

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  23. Mitzi Tinaglia

    from my perspective…i’m going to teach-help them at first, once they have learned it and they choose not to do it, then i’m going to show/correct them, physically. that doesn’t mean, well, MEAN.

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  24. I love reading all of this and I am certainly learning since I am just training my second dog. I was wondering if it really matters about the word, correction, since it means so many different things to so many people. It seems to me the meaning of the word is the action we put with it. I told a trainer when I was just starting to train my first dog that I did not use corrections. She corrected me. She asked if I tried to fix whatever was wrong. I do. But, I think, it is in how you fix it and whether you think of it as wrong or just not quite the behavior wanted yet. I thought it meant something unpleasant. I was just making sure, nicely, that the picture of the behavior was what I wanted. Then I was observing another well known, only positive, trainer at our club. I saw that she did correct. So, I asked her. She said that she did not correct, but only used a word marker to mark the incorrect behavior. I thought that was correcting. All very confusing to a beginner. Then just for fun, I began to see how many different tricks I could teach my dog. I never worried about corrections. I just taught the tricks. A lot of them. In fact we got pretty good at it and in a trick competition with over 1,000 entries from all over the United States, we placed second, and won $3,000 dollars. Just for having fun. I am just saying, I trained them and had fun and always made sure I accomplished the behaviors I wanted. But it was fun training and FUN fixes. Nothing to worry about. My dog did it for the food reward and for the fun. I have now done the same thing with my second dog, teaching even more tricks. Both of us are always eager to try a new behavior, In fact, learning something new is the most fun for both myself and for my dog. You can see it in her attitude. Both my dogs
    also get their UD and agility degrees. I teach a trick class and find that it is most beneficial to the human dog team, because there is no pressure and you can learn how your dog learns. No negatives, only guidance and excitement because the behavior is getting better and that is very rewarding. I thought everyone corrects, because to me it did not involve negatives, only encouragement to do the behavior the way I want it. I love Denise’s training because it is so positive and upbeat

    I hope this makes sense. I know most of you have trained more dogs. I am fascinated by dog training and behavior.

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  25. This is so awesome! Dogs just do what seems right to them at the moment and don’t understand why we are pulling on them all the time. I manage a large retail store and brought my dog into work for the first time today. Since we were closed she had the run of the place. I put her breakfast in a treat pouch and clipped it to my belt and every few minutes would call her in a really excited tone. Without fail she came running every single time, then I would give her a piece of kibble and tell her to go play. She was having a blast but would come back to check in with me (all on her own) because it was fun. The positive reinforcement was motivation enough for her to leave whoever she was playing with or whatever she was sniffing and come back to see me.

    Reply

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