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A Dog Trainer's Journey: From Correction-Based to Positive Reinforcement

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

A student asked me the other day why I chose the method of teaching dogs that I had, and I stumbled to answer her question. I told her that no one had ever really asked me that before. Now I'm going to answer her question more articulately than I did the other day by sharing a dog trainer's journey from correction-based to positive reinforcement training.


To answer it clearly, it would help if you had a little background about my journey with learning and loving the animals and people who helped me arrive where I am today.

I attended a popular national dog training school with my beloved Abbie almost thirty years ago. Abbie was a beautiful, regal, yet gentle-tempered blue Standard Poodle. Even though I purchased Abbie, I had essentially rescued her. I was her fifth home by the time she was fifteen months old, and the day I brought her home, she was covered in hot spots, matted hair, and soon to be discovered terrified of men. Over the next two years, I taught her everything I knew and took her to work with me at the grooming salon almost every day for socialization.


I left for six weeks with my beloved Abbie with the high aspirations of youth. We quickly jumped into the curriculum and excelled in our training. Abbie learned to sit, down, heel, and all the other obedience behaviors of the day. She learned that if she moved from any position she was told to hold, the chain around her neck would swiftly and sharply tighten. She learned to quickly pick up an object and retrieve it to stop the prongs digging from the prong collar set up high on her throat.


I learned how to convince clients that these tools 'didn't hurt' by demonstrating on their forearms, regardless that your arm isn't your neck and that human skin is thicker than a dog's. I learned how to make a dog walk on a loose leash in less than fifteen minutes as I watched my six-foot-four male instructor yank my loyal, gentle, forty-pound girl around the class to the point she was crawling out of fear, but she heeled! I learned what abuse people will allow done to the beings they love because a person of authority told them it was the way to do it. I successfully convinced and taught people to apply these methods to their dogs. But don't get me wrong, I used treats and praise too. I was very successful at teaching learned helplessness to the dogs, to not move a muscle or be corrected for anything else they tried.


Abbie and I graduated, and she was trained in high-level obedience, personal protection, assistant dog tasks, scent detection, and tracking, all in six weeks... but that happy, trusting sparkle in her eyes was gone. She was still friendly and wagged her tail, and I thought she was happy. Abbie definitely had a better life than many dogs. We went on to compete, and she earned multiple titles.

Blue Standard Poodle lying down in grass. Patty's Abrigail Blue "Abbie" CD CGC TDH June 1992-August 2009

Fast forward a couple of years, and a friend, who was involved in parrot rescue, introduced me to the clicker. After listening to her explanation for a bit, I liked the idea but told her that it would never work with dogs because "They needed to know who was in charge." But this piqued my interest, and I started reading more about clicker training and using it with some of my clients, albeit somewhat haphazardly. I taught Abbie her first behavior of a 'bow' with the clicker and positive reinforcement. It was really challenging because she had a history of being corrected for doing anything other than what she was told. Abbie lived almost eighteen years, and toward the end of her life, when everyone was getting cookies, after everything she had learned and knew, the one behavior Abbie offered for a cookie... was a bow.


A few years later, I adopted an English Bull Terrier, think Spuds McKenzie or the Target dog, from a rescue in Indiana. His young life was off to a really rough start. Found as a stray, starved, beaten, and scarred. Later in life, we discovered he had carried a secret with him for many years, a bullet lodged in his abdomen from those early days of his youth. He was a confident fellow, and once he realized he was safe, Rippy was very happy. Boy, was he a spitfire and a handful, though. First of all, he was a terrier with all his "terrier-ness." Immensely strong, determined, focused on his prize, and intense. Many people say this type of dog needs a strong, firm hand and that we need to dominate this type of dog, or it will be dangerous. He was my opportunity to use what I had learned about clicker training to use a kinder, gentler way.

White Bull Terrier sitting on tile floor looking at photographer

I wasn't perfect by far. Old habits die hard. I still did use some punishment with Rippy. But the pivotal moment... the moment that I have never looked back from... the moment that changed how I looked at dogs and everything else in this world... was a moment of frustration. It had taken sooo long to teach him to walk on a loose leash and not focus on everything his "terrier-ness" told him to. This was due to my lack of experience and understanding of how to use clicker training correctly. But I knew if I just put that prong collar on him, I could have him heeling in fifteen minutes, so in an instant of weakness, that's what I did. We had spent a year building trust between each other. The day he came home with me, I promised him that I would NEVER hurt him, and in a blink of an eye, I broke that promise, and with a swift yank and tightening of the collar, I broke his heart. I will never forget the look in his eyes... after he yipped and turned toward me in surprise. After a breath of revelation, I reached toward him. He wagged his tail, the ever-forgiving animal that he was, and I removed that collar and have never put a choke chain, prong, or shock collar on another dog since.

white Bull terrier standing next to person on gravel river bed

In a culture with instant gratification, the temptation for a quick fix is like a candy dish to a child. But we have bigger brains than our dogs and are supposedly more capable than anything on this planet. Whether you believe this or not, why teach something with pain and intimidation when you can teach with trust and good things? I have never been bitten by a dog because I clicked a clicker or delivered a treat at the wrong time. I HAVE been bitten because of a poorly timed correction and pushing a dog beyond their threshold. Even more so, I have witnessed countless dogs bite being dominance rolled, hit, scolded, punished, shocked, and yanked on collars. And fingers bit from a threatening point towards a naughty dog. I work with aggressive dogs on a weekly basis. I work with ALL kinds of dogs. I have yet to come across a dog that needs to be shown who the boss is by physically or mentally bullying and intimidating them.


So, why did I choose the methods that I use for teaching...


#1 Because I promised Rippy... and I carry no guilt in teaching everyone I can how to get behavior change effectively, humanely, and with kindness.


#2 Because I have found that it is the most effective method to influence behavior change after 30 years of working with people and their dogs.


#3 Because I love fostering a relationship of trust.


#4 Because it works.


#5 Because it is fun to see an animal's "AHA" moment of realization that you understand them and they understand you. And


#6 And why not?

Woman wearing a red shirt walking away from camera with black dog and white dog following

And after some time and patience and more learning on my part... 


Rippy learned to walk on a loose leash!

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