Correction And Reward In Dog Training

Correction and reward: what do they mean, and to what extent should they be applied? On this there cannot be hard-and-fast rules, but on a proper balance between the two the whole success of training depends — bearing in mind that to be successful one must not only get the dog to do what one wants, but to enjoy doing it. To some dogs a severe talking-to is all that is ever necessary by way of correction, but many others would treat life as one huge joke if corrected in that way. To some a friendly pat or a stroke on the head are sufficient reward, but others need fussing all the time to keep them ‘alive’.


Methods of Correction vary according to the dog and to the exercise, but never bit a dog with a stick or other weapon, or raise your hand to slap him or, even worse, flap about with a folded newspaper as some people recommend. This is likely to make the dog (if he has any sense) keep out of range, and keep away from one’s hand rather than come to it as one wants him to do. If he is a dominant dog with the slightest tendency to be aggressive he will accept this as a challenge and stand a very good chance of winning.

The first thing to do before correcting or punishing any dog is to get hold of him. The usual method of correction is to jerk a dog with the lead as and when he does, or attempts to do, the wrong thing. Chain slip collars hang quite slack and are much more comfortable than buckled collars when not in use, but they can immediately be jerked up tight. They are almost universal in training circles, but a good deal depends on the strength (mental and physical) of the dog compared with the strength of the owner. If no effect can be obtained by the simple chain slip collar, there are several quite effective training collars on the market which are decidedly uncomfortable when jerked up tight but quite comfortable, and therefore quite humane, when the lead is slack.

And if that fails, then I advise getting a smaller or more responsive dog! I always feel sorry for women in particular as they struggle and strain in trying to jerk some sense into a big, boisterous, powerful young dog — usually with no effect at all, except on themselves.

If a dog is deliberately disobedient and needs a severe reprimand I take a firm hold of him by the loose skin on each side of his neck, I look straight into his face, scold him and shake him — really shake him if necessary. This method of correction was taught to me by a shepherd long before I had ever heard of obedience training. It is still the most effective method I know to correct a wilfully disobedient dog. Great care should be taken, however, in using it on a young and/or sensitive dog, as it could completely demoralize it.


We now come to the equally, or even more, important subject of Reward. To me, it is a great pity that so many trainers appear to overlook its importance or are reluctant to use this aid to training. We see competitors, both novice and otherwise, stomping round an obedience ring with every muscle tensed, a look of grim determination on their faces, but never a word of praise for the dog which is probably doing its best to please.

How does one reward a dog? As I said, it depends entirely on the dog, and, to the ideal dog, a friendly pat and a kind word are all that are necessary. There are others, unfortunately, which couldn’t care less whether one pats them or not. Some would much rather be left alone to enjoy their own pastimes. Some dogs respond to a lot of fussing, while others will, if fussed a lot, become far too excited and forget what one is trying to teach them. Generally speaking, patting or fussing the dog is all that is necessary by way of reward and the great majority of obedience trainers, I think, use and recommend that method.

The other method of reward is by food, and this is the method by which most pet dog owners attempt to train their dogs, and by which nearly all circus and stage dogs are trained. It is, however, a very controversial subject, and some trainers, for whose opinions I have the greatest respect, condemn its use under any circumstances. It should also be noted that the use of food is not allowed in competitions and it would be foolish to have a dog which always expected it.

My own experience is that some dogs will work much more quickly and show much greater enthusiasm if occasionally rewarded with food. Its use can be very valuable in some exercises, but worse than useless in others (I shall try to explain as I come to them). But the dog must be made to understand clearly that he must do what he is told, food or no food — it should be used only as an extra incentive to do it a bit better.

Such, then, is correction, and such is reward. We now come to the important and difficult matter of combining the two. If there are any ‘secrets’ in training, the ability to combine correction and reward properly is certainly one of them. It is a gift which many people try for years to acquire without success, while others appear to master it right from the start.

There are several rules to observe, the first and probably the most important being that you must correct or reward your dog according to whether he does wrong or right, not according to whether you yourself are feeling in a bad mood or a good one. That may seem obvious, but I am afraid that neglect of this rule is a far too common failing amongst those who try to train dogs. All of us, for many and varied reasons, feel a bit cross and irritable at times. That is not the mood in which to try to train a dog. My advice in those circumstances is to forget about training and simply take the dog for a romp. By doing so you will do no harm — the day off may do him a lot of good — but if you try to teach him something which he finds difficult you will almost certainly have a ‘scene’, which may prove a serious set-back. At this point I might mention, too, that people who lose their tempers should never attempt to train a dog or any other animal.

The next important point is to correct or reward your dog as and when he does the wrong or the right thing. When he is in the process of learning some new exercise, make a point of praising and rewarding him whenever he makes the slightest attempt to do what you want him to do. This requires a great deal of concentration on the part of the trainer — but you cannot expect a dog to concentrate on you if you do not concentrate on him. Try to anticipate what he is going to do so that you can correct or reward him as he does it — not before or after.

Never correct a dog more than is necessary. This varies tremendously with different dogs. If he responds to a little jerk on a slip collar then just give him little jerks, but if he does not appear to feel a little jerk you must go on jerking harder and harder, and

harder, until he does feel it. Never really punish a dog unless you are sure that he knows what he should do and is deliberately disobeying you. It is not always easy to be sure, but, if in doubt, give the dog the benefit.

Do not forget that dogs, like humans, can feel a bit off colour without actually being ill. If your dog does not appear to be enjoying the exercises which he usually likes, then make him do something quite simple which he likes doing, make a great fuss of him, and finish training for the day. He will probably be his usual self again tomorrow, but if you go on forcing him, you are likely to make him a sour and miserable worker.

By a co-ordination or balancing of correction and reward the dog should very quickly learn that it is much more pleasant to do what you want him to do, and he should try to please you. What is even more important is that, by doing so, he will learn to respect you and accept you as his leader. From that respect will develop a devotion far greater than can be developed by any amount of feeding, cuddling and slobbering over, regarded by many as essential if a dog is to become fond of them.

Right from the start build up a sense of respect in your dog by correcting him when he does wrong (as severely as necessary); by praising him when he does right; by never blaming him when you are to blame yourself; by never either over-rating or under-rating his intelligence. To put it briefly, be just and fair at all times.

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