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Myth busting: you can't ever tell your dog off!

A lot of the dogs we work with are high level aggression cases who have seen other dog trainers in the past and the training hasn't worked. One of the most common things they have been told is that 'you can't ever tell your dog off as it will ruin your relationship with them'. Well today i'm going to explain why that isn't true.

The basic science behind how dog's learn is through classical and operant conditioning, simplified into the four quadrants of learning. This states that reinforcement ensures a behavior is repeated and punishment ensures a behavior isn't repeated. I'm not going to go into too much detail but if you'd like to read more on the science behind dog training you can do here (

So telling your dog off for practicing behavior's you don't like is not only important but is actually fundamental to the learning process and is scientifically backed. Skinner himself (the psychologist behind classical and operant conditioning) concluded in his studies 'to change an unwanted behavior, you need to use a mixture of positive reinforcement and punishment in order for the dog to fully understand what is required by them'.

Now, even the most perfect dog ever is going to make a mistake one day, dog's are living creatures and expecting them to never need to be corrected on anything is a huge expectation. You wouldn't expect your child to go to school for their first day and never throughout their whole school life, make a mistake. A teacher's job in a school is to help their students learn in the best way possible, making learning as enjoyable as they can but also ensuring that their pupils learn the topic's required and do well in their school career. If teachers never told us when we had the wrong answer, how would we know to keep looking for another?

It's the same for dogs, if we are only ever telling our dog's when they are doing something right, how will they know if they are doing something wrong? At the same time if we are only telling our dogs off for doing something wrong, how will they know when they are doing something right?

Now punishment doesn't mean abuse. You don't need to be hitting or screaming at your dog when they do something wrong as this is only going to make them nervous and yes, that will ruin your relationship with your dog. We tend to use more of a correction followed by redirection so we are very clearly telling the dog what we don't want and what we do want instead. Something like a small leash pop for pulling on the lead followed by praise or a treat for walking nicely to heel. It's clear when the dog is doing the right thing and when it isn't and helps the dog to learn effectively and humanely.

Now let's briefly talk about relationship. Every good relationship (and the key word is GOOD) is built on two factors; trust and respect. Trust is built through calmness and respect is built through confidence. If your dog trusts and respects you, they'll follow your leadership without an issue. If they don't trust you, they will be nervous and act on their insecurities and if they don't respect you, they won't be willing to follow your leadership and will act up.

A good relationship with anyone is where you encourage each other, build each other up and help each other grow. When you have a good relationship with someone, they can tell you when they don't like something you do and when it comes from a place of love it will inspire behavior change. Being horrible to someone, calling them names or shouting at them won't inspire long term behavior change and it's the same with our dogs. Shouting blindly at your dog won't inspire long term behavior change and will more likely than not, cause damage to your relationship. Building up the foundations of a good relationship and then using appropriate correctional and directional training inspires long term behavioral change and will actually grow your relationship further as your dog learns that you are a trustworthy leader who they can rely on.

Let's not be afraid as dog owners to help our dogs know what is right and wrong so that we can have better relationships with them and allow them to enjoy life knowing that their owner is always there to help them when they need someone!


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