Correct without corrections

"Doesn't he need to know that it's wrong?"

A student in my dog classes recently asked me this, about a dog making a house-training error.  I commiserated and repeated the usual how-to, but it got me pondering the idea of corrections.  Generally, "corrections" in pet dog training involve telling the dog he got it wrong by using something like a collar jerk, a yell or stern word, or a button pressed on a shock collar remote. 

I used to think the same thing, by the way.  How can you train a dog what not to do, without correcting their obvious errors?  Showing them the right way would only go so far.  It made the idea of training solely with treats seem like a folly. 

Let's imagine...

Imagine you are going to visit a newly-found cousin back in the mother country - quaint farms on green hillsides, cobbled lanes, and delicious food.  You elect to stay in a small hotel near the town named for your great-great-grandma, but are alarmed - truly, alarmed - to discover there is a rather substantial difference in bathroom etiquette.  The porcelain bowl you have used your whole life is, in this country, habitat for expensive goldfish pets.  You learn from the wild gesticulations of your grey-haired host that you must use what rather strongly resemble lawnchairs.  Outside.  On the lawn.  

After holding on for far too long, you decide you simply must comply with local customs.  You head out the front door single-mindedly.  The host, recognizing you as a foreigner and having dealt with many others with similar reservations, appears after a delicately appropriate interval to thank you profusely.  He offers you a complimentary glass of wine from their cellar, and you start to feel that maybe, just maybe, you can handle this situation after all. 

A few days of this routine and you even start to question (as did many people when bathrooms moved inside) how hygienic it is to do those functions next door to both the kitchen and bedroom.   In addition, your host continues to have a small gift handy at just the right time - a coupon for the local spa, a discounted room upgrade.  You log on to your travel site and gratefully give the hotel a five-star rating. 

But alas, you flub.  Your cousin keeps you up late one night with photo albums and a bottle of a rather potent berry-flavoured liquor.  Without thinking, you make use of the goldfish bowl.  In the morning, your misstep is noted by the maid and the hotel owner hustles you to his office.  He's very sorry, but you will need to pay to replace the goldfish's preferred aquatic plants.  In fact, the relatively hefty fine has already been applied to your credit card.  (And let's be honest.  Despite the sternest of warnings you give yourself, there are three more charges over the time you are there.  You are only human.)

On the last day of your visit you realize, a bit to your surprise, that you now happily participate in a totally new normal.  You are completely trained.  Your behaviour has profoundly changed.  At no point did the hotel owner bully you, use harsh language, scare you, or strike you - in fact, some of those actions would give you cause to head to the local police station.  At the very least, they would have drastically changed what you said about the hotel in your review. 

This is how a dog's behaviour changes, too.  The rules change, and they adapt.  They are rewarded for new behaviours, and those behaviours happen more often.  Sometimes, they get dinged with a time-out (think credit card fine) if they flub.  With consistency, they easily learn how to be correct, without any of the standard corrections. 

And guess what?  You get to keep your five-star rating then, too.