I often hear it said that avoiding correction is “withholding half of the information that dogs needs to succeed.” The idea is that by telling the dog both when when they are right AND when they are wrong, that they can learn with more clarity, and therefore be happier dogs who understand exactly what we want from them. You can define correction however you wish.
Is this true?
If you teach a dog with clear criteria for success (what you want) then your dog will automatically learn what is wrong, and since being wrong is perfectly fine and is part of the learning process, there’s no reason to avoid it.
Let’s consider it more closely.
On a scale of -10 to +10, with -10 as the most awful thing that you can do to a dog and +10 as being the most amazing reward, what does a dog, or a human for that matter, need to learn?
They need change. A difference. That is all.
So, if you go from a +5 to a +8, then your dog will try to figure out what caused that improvement. Both the 5 and the 8 are positive for the dog, but the dog would still prefer the 8, and will try to figure out what it takes to get more “8’s” from you.
Most of the time, people use “0′ to indicate neutral – the handler will neither reward nor punish, and then a +reward for “Yes, that’s what I want!”
My approach is a bit more positive – I tend to be actively involved in training at all times- whether the dog is correct or not, because I see it as part of the game of training and I believe that it builds our training relationship. So I try to keep all training in the range of about a +2 to +10.
Let’s consider teaching a dog to hold the dumbbell tightly with the following video. How can I teach what is right without telling the dog that munching or dropping it is wrong?
By rewarding what is right at a higher level than what is wrong. I simply need a higher value reward for better work.
Offer the dumbbell and start easy! (that piece is already trained here). Then start moving that dumbbell. If Brito does not clamp down it will come out of his mouth – no cookie. If it stays in his mouth – cookie. Cookie is positive and no cookie is less positive. In the video you’ll see that even when Brito fails I still talk and interact and his tail never stops wagging, so I believe the whole experience is on the positive side of the scale regardless of his success or failure on any particular repetition. He enjoys the game of learning, even when he’s not getting a cookie. That is exactly what I want; no fear of failure.
So how does Brito learn right from wrong? What gets the best reward is right and is most likely to be repeated. What gets a lesser reward (possibly my personal interaction without a cookie) is wrong. No big deal. No need to add a No Reward Marker or any other correction. Just try again.
Three failures in a row? Make it easier. You can see that here, and you can see that this approach allows for success immediately afterwards.
Soon enough, Brito will have learned to clamp down tightly until I request that he release, and soon after that the behavior will simply become a habit – he will clamp down without really thinking about it.
And if sometime down the road he makes an error in a full behavior chain? That’s fine – I’ll hand it right back to him. Because “handing it back” is not the normal flow of the behavior chain, he’ll know that means something wasn’t quite right and he’ll do it correctly on the next attempt. And if he doesn’t? Then I’ll remove that piece from the chain and work on it.
How about under the pressure of proofing? Maybe Brito wants a yummy cookie on the floor so he drops the dumbbell to get the cookie. THEN do we need a punisher?
No. Just pick up both the cookie and the dumbbell. Picking up the cookie prevents self reinforcing and picking up the dumbbell communicates that he blew it, and his chance to earn reinforcement is now being delayed. You can be as cheerful as you wish throughout this entire process.
If your dog understands the process of proofing away from your brand new dumbbell hold then you may well discover that you have single incident learning. One time he’ll drop the dumbbell because of the cookie. You respond by picking up the cookie and the dumbbell. He remembers how proofing works. And that’s that.
Would it be faster to add a correction to really make your point?
No, because dogs that anticipate correction for errors are more reluctant students. It’s not much fun to be told you’re wrong, so the dog’s willingness to engage goes down. And since full engagement is the most important factor for ease of learning, that will not help your long term training at all. Give me a dog that lives to work with me, and training will be a breeze.
There’s no need to add a punisher at all. Not in the teaching phase, not in the behavior chain phase, and not in the proofing phase.
When I was teaching my kids their multiplication tables we did the same thing. First I helped them learn each one individually; we did that by rote. Then I quizzed them; success earned “good!” or moving on to the next one to indicate all was well (maintaining the flow of work is a reward). Errors earned raised eyebrows and a smile to keep them in the game, but the stopping of flow would cause them to reconsider with more effort. Multiple failures in a row? We quizzed too soon; start over and work the individual pieces! Eventually, reduce the amount of verbal interaction for routine success as a matter of the natural raising of criteria -what it takes to get a positive reaction out of me. And finally, stop working on them individually and add them back into their more advanced math that requires the skill of multiplication. And if a problem arises down the road that indicates a lack of fluency? Find the problem area – maybe the 7’s were weak. Work on those separately and then add them back into the whole. Move on.
Train what you want. That’s it.