In general, the verb “correct” means to make something right after an error is identified. Most of us perceive it as a learning opportunity but with some emotional baggage attached. For example, if your teacher corrects you repeatedly in a short period of time then it will start to erode your self-confidence, no matter how nicely they do it. As a result, most sophisticated instructors will revert to teaching if they notice the total number of corrections becoming out of proportion to the number of successful repetitions.
In the dog world, this word seems to have gone somewhat awry. When we ask someone to “correct” their dog, what we usually mean is to make the dog sorry, not to make the dog right. It is a function of punishment. Corrections may be used to teach (learn to heel by being popped back every time you attempt to leave), or it may be used after the instructor believes the dog understands the exercise. Regardless, the dog is sorry they made the error because the end result wasn’t too good for them.
“Correct your dog!” is a phrase commonly heard in obedience classes and it would be fairly unusual for the instructor to mean put the dog back with a cookie, though that would indeed put the dog back into position as effectively as a collar pop. The commonly understood meaning of “correct your dog!” in an obedience class is to pop the collar or apply some other aversive that the dog is expected to use to make them more correct in the future. Whether or not that aversive has the desired effect on future behavior is another story altogether and depends on many factors, but suffice it to say that it often has a completely different effect than what the trainer intended or expected.
I’d love to see dog trainers take the word back to its original meaning. When you correct your dog, focus on making your dog right! And if that correction doesn’t work to remind the dog of what you wanted (whether an aversive or a cookie) then you need to stop testing and go back to training – teach the dog what you want.
And if you find yourself correcting your dog repeatedly, whether with a collar pop or a cookie? That suggests a fundamental problem with the dog’s understanding of that behavior under the current circumstances. Go back to the teaching phase. It’s no different than what you would want from your instructor if you were struggling to be correct on a behavior that you were attempting to master- more energy spent on helping you be right and a lot less emphasis on testing your knowledge.
A little patience doesn’t hurt either. I find it takes years for handlers to master the skills required of excellent dog training and good instructors remain patient with the students through good spells and less good ones. Give your dog the same courtesy.
Consider your intent when you correct your dog. What I want is to improve future behavior. I can do that by applying corrections that make the dog right without making them sorry at all, and then I know to go back to training.
Positive reinforcement training is all about making the dog correct. If you’re not sure if you want to proceed with a given approach to training, try to put yourself in your dog’s shoes for a moment. If you apply whatever it is that is in your head, what is the likely end result? A correct dog or sorry one?
Take it from there.