Dog Training: Should corrections be used as a last resort?

I’d like to start a discussion on whether corrections should be used as a last resort in dog training.

Let’s forget about labels such as “all positive trainers” because those labels are very limiting and inaccurate. No trainer is all positive, and hopefully none of them claim to be.

By “corrections” I’m referring to anything that might be used to stop a dog from doing something. It could be a sharp noise such as “hey!” or “no!” It could be snapping your fingers. It could be a tap on the shoulder or stepping forward to block a dog’s space. It could be a light tug on the leash or a light sound or vibration from a shock collar.

I use all of these things.

When I’m training my own dog Ace, I prefer to use positive reinforcement as much as possible – treats and praise. This is all I use for trick training and it’s what I use mostly for obedience training.

But sometimes a correction is what’s needed for the best results, and using a correction is not my last resort.

” … using a correction is not my last resort.”

For example, when my dog tries to eat something gross off the ground on a walk, I firmly say “No!” or I tug on the leash or physically block him.

As another example, my dog barked at a raccoon at 10:30 p.m. one night this week. We live in an apartment complex, and I do not approve of barking. I scolded Ace with “No!” He got the message.

So, while I prefer positive reinforcement it’s not always my first choice. Sometimes it won’t work, and sometimes it’s just not the safest option.

Running with rescue dogs

Marcus was up for adoption in Fargo

I used to run with rescue dogs in Fargo, N.D. I did this year round, which meant it was often below 0 degrees with a lot of snow, ice and wind. The dogs were housed on the edge of town on a road with heavy truck traffic – no sidewalks or shoulders.

In those conditions, I could not be fumbling around with treats. I had gloves on, and the wind was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. Plus, I was wearing several layers, a hood, a facemask and sunglasses. Communication and movement were limited.

The prong collar was always my first choice. It was usually my only choice.

Those dogs would come bounding out with so much power and enthusiasm. They were dogs without foster homes, so they were typically the strongest and largest dogs with the worst manners.

The prong collar allowed me to be out and about safely with one dog at a time. With a prong collar on, the dog would be at my side, not pulling me. A Gentle Leader or Halti just wouldn’t work because so many of the dogs would buck and struggle against it the whole time. This was too risky with all the ice and traffic. I needed the dogs to be under control at all times.

In warmer months, I still preferred the prong collar, although I sometimes used a simple martingale collar with some of the less powerful dogs.

I guess I just feel like there is a disconnect when people put so much pressure on themselves to be “all positive.” Doing so does not make someone a better dog trainer or a better dog owner.

How about the rest of you?

What types of “corrections” do you give your dog? Do you use these as a last resort?

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  1. Jessicavy on February 27, 2014

    This was a really good post. Very thought-provoking. I think, for me, it depends on the dog. My last dog was very stable, with a middle-of-the-road temperament, and I used mostly corrections when training him. It worked great, and we had a good relationship. My current dog is incredibly submissive and fearful. He has fear aggression issues. At first I tried treating him just like my last dog, and this was a mistake. It didn’t work, and I ended up frustrated and him confused. Now, I do use corrections as a last resort with him and it’s working well. It’s hard, because with him it’s best to catch him right before he does something bad and distract him, rather than correcting him if he does mess up. There are still things where correcting him is my first and only choice. When he lunges and barks at other dogs on our walks, the only thing that calms him down is walking into him until he shuts up (which is very quickly). He’s gotten so much better with this method!

  2. Lindsay Stordahl Author on February 27, 2014

    I really appreciate hearing your take on these topics. Ace is pretty sensitive too so my “corrections” have to be mild.

  3. Emma on February 27, 2014

    I think every dog an every situation needs to be evaluated differently. Mom uses no or blocking sometimes to stop something from happening, so first resort so to say. We walk year round on ice and snow and pulling and tugging can be dangerous, meaning sometimes force is necessary. There are no outdoor treats in the winter in MN, so you have to use what you have with gloves on. As long as you aren’t hitting the dog or anything, you need to use what you can to get their attention sometimes.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on February 27, 2014

      So glad someone else can related to those Midwestern dog walks! I am from the Minneapolis area originally.

  4. Dawn on February 27, 2014

    While I use positive reinforcement for a lot of things, I do a lot of corrections as well. My dogs know the word No! very well. I even use a leash jerk or two for certain situations. And then there is negative punishment which is where I ignore Pierson when he jumps on me. I don’t equate these things, though, to being the same as shock or prong collars. If a shock or prong collar is necessary for safety, I can completely understand. What worries me, though, is that some people get confused or misled into thinking they are the only training tools when there are so many other methods out there that might be better for their dog and their situation.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on February 27, 2014

      Yes, I know what you mean about people thinking prong or shock collars are the only option. I also worry about the people who think they have to use “all positive” and are afraid to tell their dogs no. That can be a dangerous situation too.

      • Dawn on March 3, 2014

        There are a lot of different training options and which option can vary depending on the dog, the person, and the situation. I know my dogs and have a pretty good idea of which things work better and in what kind of situations. And I know my own limitations and I don’t use tools I’m not comfortable with. Can you believe I’m not comfortable using a clicker either? I’ve seen the tool used and I think it’s great. But if it’s not used properly, it will only generate confusion. I am not sure if I can teach myself to be consistent with it. If someone isn’t familiar with a specific tool such as a clicker or a prong or shock collar, then it’s probably best to enlist the help of a good dog trainer.

  5. Rebekah on February 27, 2014

    Neeko typically responds really well to verbal corrections at home. When we are walks, or out and about, she does not, unfortunately. For pet store visits, going to visit friends and family, a gentle leader works well with her. On walks on our property, or at parks, I have to use a prong collar on her. Each dog is different, each situation is different.

  6. Shelby on February 27, 2014

    Honestly, there are lots of different training methods and mixes thereof and I’ve always understood that what works for me will not work for every single other person, nor in every other situation. While I lean much more towards positive reinforcement currently, I really have no problem with other training methods as long as they are used properly. The biggest thing I run into is methods used ineffectively. Just as the positive reinforcement trainer will have trouble if they think it’s just too mean to redirect a dog practicing bad behavior, users of say a prong collar will run into trouble if they just apply constant correction or don’t fit the collar. Much of this comes from just general misinformation about what is humane and inhumane and what people are exposed to. For instance, in the photo of the dog above with the prong collar, while it looks like the fit is correct, the position is wrong. A prong collar fits high up the neck, just under the jaw and behind the ears where the least amount of pressure will constitute a correction for the dog. And this is without even getting into whether or not someone is using the prong method correctly/effectively in practice.

  7. Jana Rade on February 28, 2014

    I’d say it highly depends on the correction and on the situation. We customarily use clearing our throat type of warning, followed by praise/reward when they stop the unwanted action.

    More emphatic vocalizations are used when the action they’re about to do would be dangerous.

    I have used a jerk on the leash when Cookie is just about to grab and eat something of the ground and I know my only chance is to physically pull her away from it. Nothing else I could do or say would be fast enough. If there IS enough time, then the throat clearing will do.

    I feel that subtle things, such as the throat clearing, when timed right, are perfectly acceptable and effective in certain situations.

    Cookie isn’t stressed by it at all and typically responds very well. I can tell you, though, that she knows how to use it too. For example, I don’t want her to chew on stick outside (because she’d eat most of it). So when she’s about to grab a stick, I’ll clear my throat. She’ll leave the stick and I’ll reward her. When she already does have one, I ask her to drop it and when she does, I reward her. I swear she is grabbing sticks on purpose now. Just today, she moved toward a stick, didn’t even wait for my sound and instead came looking for a treat. “Look, mom, I didn’t grab the stick.”

    Joys of living with clever dogs. LOL

  8. wow on March 4, 2014

    I think that it is most important for people to realize that negative feedback has a place, especially when the dog has been trained and is reliable (or semi-reliable) with the command. For example, if my dog is going to grab food on the ground, I will say leave it. If he chooses not to, when he has been thoroughly trained and worked with on this command, then I will give him a leash correction. Similarly, I use a sharp no when he tries to take the children’s toys. He has been taught that those are not his and he is to leave them alone. However, I would not use this technique for a puppy starting out with his obedience training.

  9. Rumi on March 24, 2014

    Wow. That’s really awesome to be part of Dog Rescue team. Yes, I like positive reinforcements too but sometimes you have to be firm and say “No” to your dog. I’m happy my dog is smart and gets the message clearly though sometimes she doesn’t. I never ever resort to hurting my dog.