Don’t correct–redirect!

There is a mantra among trainers who focus on positive reinforcement-based training methods: “Don’t correct – redirect!”

I did some Googling to try and find the origin of it so I could give credit where it is due, but unfortunately came up with no results, so I’ve been trying to ask around to see if anyone knows. If so, I will gladly come back to edit this blog to give credit where it’s due! Regardless, it is a great way to help us all understand what is probably the most important way to view problem behaviors: instead of focusing on “How do I get my dog to STOP DOING THAT?” we should focus on “What do I want my dog TO do?”

Millie works on sitting instead of jumping for rewards and attention
Millie works on sitting instead of jumping for rewards and attention

When we do this, we switch to being more proactive, rather than reactive. This can be challenging because we live in a busy society that is commonly reactive, but if you are able to switch your habit in this way, you will find much better success with your dog. After all, how many people do you know yell at their dogs to stop doing something, and have success? Not many. This is because the dog either gets used to it and it has no effect at all, or because the dog finds it unpleasant and gets sneakier with the bad behaviors that draw this attention. Worse yet, for some dogs, it can cause anxiety or worsening of fears and even aggression, because the averse nature of the tone/approach causes worse reactions in this regard.

So, how do we redirect?

First, use a happy tone to interrupt behaviors. Doing this will more easily get your dog’s attention, and you can praise him and redirect him to something else you want him to do, and reinforce it. We call this a “positive interrupter.” Sometimes sounds, rather than words, work better. I tend to use a kissy noise.

You will have more success with a positive interrupter if you condition it first. What do I mean by this? Get the dog accustomed that the interrupter is rewarding so when you DO need it in those naughty moments, it will be more likely to be more effective.

  • Get some yummy small treats and a clicker (or you can use a marker word, such as yes, if you don’t have or want to use a clicker)
  • Give your kissy noise, or other noise or happy-tone cue that you want to use for a positive interrupter, one that you know will get your dog’s interest.
  • The instant your dog turns their head toward you, click (or give your marker word), and give your dog a treat.
  • Repeat this several times in many different sorts of situations and environments–different rooms and areas of your home, in public, etc.
  • After some time, when your dog is orienting to you each and every time, you can click and treat less, and do it every other time, two to three times, etc., as well as substitute praise and other rewards. We call this “intermittent reinforcement,” and it’s like a slot-machine effect–the dog isn’t sure when he will actually get a reward, but the anticipation is more powerful than the reward. By using this intermittent reinforcement, we make the behavior even stronger. It also sets you up for success in using your positive interrupter when you need without having your clicker/treat.

There is also a great video from Emily Larlham on conditioning a positive interrupter that you can see here.

Interrupting an unwanted behavior is only part of the equation, so let’s talk about the other part–what do you want your dog TO do? After you have successfully interrupted the behavior with your positive interrupter, redirect the dog to something you want him to do, and then reinforce that behavior. Doing this over and over again to address particular problem behaviors can help him learn an alternative behavior that he can use instead of the one you don’t want.

But let’s take it a step further–if your dog is always doing the problem behavior before the one you don’t want, you will not be as successful. Why? This is because he’s getting practice at the behavior you don’t want or at worse–you are creating what we call a behavior chain, where the “bad” behavior precedes the “good” one, and therefore must be what you want, right? At least, that’s what your dog thinks.

So, it’s best if you can determine what your dog may do before he even engages in the problem behavior. You may need to note his body language, or how the environment is set up, and take steps to either change this or know it so you can redirect before the moment of naughtiness occurs. Observation is key and will help you in successfully replacing what you don’t want with what you do want. If you do this earlier, rather than later, you will not fall into the trap of setting up a behavior chain that includes the unwanted behavior, and your training will be more efficient in teaching the dog what is expected of him.

To illustrate all this, let’s use an example. Let’s say I have a dog who is always raiding the trash. The best way to address this is to put trash away where the dog is unable to access it, or use a locking trash that he can’t open. Even then, my dog may be smart enough to learn how to get to it, or I may accidentally leave it out. In those cases, if I’m around and I see my dog heading over to the trash, I may catch him early enough to use my positive interrupter to get him to come back to me to play with a favorite toy instead, and then put the trash away.

Let’s use another example: jumping. My dog jumps on me when I get home and I want him to stop this. When I get home, I am ready with my clicker and treats to anticipate his excitement, and once I open the door, I throw a handful of treats down and away from me so he will go eat them. Then, I can click and treat as he approaches and I move away, to prevent his jumping on me and to reinforce all four on the floor. I could also practice “sit” and prompt him with this cue, instead.

The next time your dog is doing something you don’t like, ask yourself, “What do I want him to do?” Use this goal as a way to guide you to redirecting him to that behavior. Make notes of when he does the behavior, to whom and under what circumstances? Can you modify those to eliminate the behavior? Or can you see what’s going on as early as you can to interrupt it before it even happens, to instead get the behavior you want, and then make it very rewarding? Doing this will make your lives more peaceful and will eliminate the frustration you have, and any need for punishment, which most always has drawbacks.

While all of this seems relatively simple–and it is–applying it can be difficult. This is because every dog is different and there are many nuances to timing, and management. Extreme problem behaviors are always best dealt with under the guidance of a professional, so I always recommend meeting with a certified trainer who uses positive reinforcement-based methods for people who are struggling with their dogs. If you are having problems applying techniques with success, contact us. If we can’t help you, we will find someone who can!

Thank you for reading and happy training!
Owner, Delightful Doggies

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