Correction & Reward

The media in this day and age has popularised the concept of the ultimate dominance of humans over dogs; the alpha to their dogs.
I know that in my earlier articles I talked about pack leadership. This article is not a change in belief, but to further clarify and help everyone understand that the idea of leadership (even towards our dogs) encompasses more than just being domineering. My earlier article on being a pack leader was in the context of having 4 or more dogs. More importantly, today I am going to address how one can be a strong leader to their dogs. It holds similar principles in your workplace and even in your family (especially as the male of the household or as parents to your kids).

Being a leader is not equivalent to being a boss or an alpha. It simply means that you know how to give respect before getting respect. Respect is what everyone wants and needs; but respect has to be earned. Between a human and a dog, humans have to respect dogs for who they are, how they are and how God have created them. This will determine our attitude and hence our approach towards our dogs. We do recognise that we are the superior being – we can rationalise, deduce, and perform tasks that are impossible for dogs. For that reason, we must model what respect is and approach God’s creation with respect.

So, back to our topic on correction and reward. How do we know when to correct and when to reward, and exactly what’s the difference? This is where I would like to highlight the application of  true leadership. A leader will correct someone for a mistake, and after the wrong has ‘made’ right, the leader recognises and affirms the act or behaviour. In short, the leader rewards. When we correct a dog’s behaviour, safe methods should be employed. Too often, we mistake certain corrective actions, that may be hurtful, to be effective. For example, a dog keeps pulling on the leash. I do observe that one of the popular corrective method is to tug on the dog’s leash in order to control them. When performed with bad techniques and possible frustration, not only can the method be ineffective, the dog can even be susceptible to injuries.

So what are some of the correction methods an owner can employ for some common undesirable behaviours displayed by the dog?

IMG_40471. Dog pulling at the leash

Immediately change direction if your dog starts to pull or walk ahead. You might have to do it multiple times before the dog gets it. The moment your dog starts walking beside you properly,  quickly reward the dog by letting him or her sniff the grass (that’s right grass-sniffing can be rewarding to a dog) or get a treat. The tricky part is to catch your dog doing right and affirm immediately to help the dog associate that certain behavioural display is desirable. If, after rewarding your dog, he or she falls back into the same bad habits in the next instance, conduct the correction-reward process all over again. Patience is a virtue when training your dog.

Dogs not sitting on command

Pulling at the leash upwards (like a choking action) quite forcefully or physically pushing the dog’s butt down to force them to comply to the ‘sit’ command may not be ideal. What one can try is to use food in hand as a lure. Place your hand (with an irresistible treat enclosed in hand) in front of their nose and direct the dog into a sit position. When they do sit, let the dog have the treat as a reward. When you need to physically bring a dog into a sit position – very gently push their butt down with the food lure still in front of their nose guiding the dog into the sit position.

A correction for a dog must always be followed by a reward.

Anything that excites the dog can be use as a reward. It may be letting a dog sniff at the grass, positive praise and of course, food. For example, Scott loves playing with a ball, however he is an anti-social dog. He’ll walk away or sit down when another dog sniffs him (this is the way dogs socialise when they first meet one another). One day Scott meets a very calm and friendly dog and decides not to sit down or walk away for just 2 seconds. Upon seeing that, I will grab his favourite ball and play fetch with him for awhile. That becomes a reward for him. Scott learns that he will get rewarded if he lets another dog sniff him. Isn’t that wonderful? Dogs are just so easy to please, we just have to learn to understand how to harness that strength.

For correction methods, canning the dog (depending on which country and culture you’re from), yelling at the dog, bringing the dog to a time-out corner (we will talk about time-out corner another time), not feeding the dog are not encouraged. Correction can be as simple and gentle as ignoring, walking away, changing direction or making a firm sound that’s consistently used for correction only (it doesn’t have to be loud). Dogs don’t rationalise and they won’t remember after 1-3 seconds the act that you disapprove. For example, Bob tends to bark non-stop during walks when he meets another dog. Bob’s owner keeps pulling on the leash to control him. On some occasion, they cave in and allow a hyper-excited Bob rush to another dog to allow him a sniff since they recognise that is how dogs make friends or what he wants. However, this will only help intensify Bob’s barking, as he will associate that he needs to pull and bark a lot to get rewarded (sniffing another dog). To implement a correction for such behaviour is just by changing direction, walking away from the other dog. I don’t mean tugging on the leash and choking Bob. Just change direction and brandish out his favourite treat in front of his nose and lure him into a sit position, facing away from the other dog. Rewarding him once his excitement has gone down significantly. Of course this takes patience. You may probably need to repeat your correct-reward cycle repeatedly until the dog is able to walk pass other dogs without reacting with hyper-excitement. Follow through your training with a reward, i.e. allow him to sniff the other dog eventually as a reward. (if your dog is reactive is such scenario, consult a professional)

Always understand how dogs think and learn before starting to implement corrective methods learnt from various sources, – indeed the methods can either work against or for you.

Note: Popping of the leash has been taught by many trainers and behaviourist, however, this has to be done properly and the right way, if not it becomes a negative act and is counter-effective. Therefore, for my clients, I teach and advocate more positive approaches.

by Ezra Koh

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