Thursday, July 21, 2011

Are corrections really necessary?

Every once in a while, I hear someone ask, “Do I HAVE to correct my dog?” This is usually a newbie trainer who is concerned that corrections will spoil their dog’s attitude or worries that corrections need to be physically harsh in order to be effective. (Neither one is true, by the way).

More than likely, they don't understand the role corrections play in developing a dog who understands his job and how to do it in a variety of environments.

No. You don’t HAVE to correct your dog. You can try ignoring the incorrect behavior or you can start the exercise over again or give second commands or whatever. But what’s going to happen when you’re in the ring and need to do it right the first time? And your dog feels like he’s been abandoned because the support system he’s relied on to perform the exercises is gone?

Personally, I feel if you don’t make fair, well-timed corrections part of your training you’re setting yourself up to go into the ring with a dog who will probably do as he pleases once he realizes no tangible rewards or additional handler help are coming. Depending on the alignment of the planets, this may result in a qualifying performance or it may not.

Let’s put it this way, if you care enough to actually enter an obedience trial, it means you want more from your dog than just a minimal understanding of household basics. You’ve probably taken some classes or lessons and logged a fair amount of training time on your own.

Let’s do the math for a show weekend. These numbers are pretty generic and are probably on the low end. They’re obviously for a trainer who drives a very fuel efficient vehicle, stays in cheap motels and doesn’t eat much when she’s on the road!

Entry fee: $25 for 1 class x 2 days = $50
Tank of gas: $50
Hotel for 2 nights: $100
Meals for 2 days: $40
TOTAL: $240

I don’t know about you, but $240 per weekend isn’t pocket change for me, especially if I’m going to show a couple of weekends a month and enter both Open/Utility each day. Plus, by the point when you decide to show, you’ve probably already written checks for classes, building fees and lessons, so there’s another couple of hundred dollars you’ve spent getting ready. Not to mention taking time off work and “abandoning” your spouse and family for the weekend.

Why in the world would you go to this effort and expense, yet hesitate to take a necessary step that will definitely increase the chances of turning in a successful performance? When I commit that amount of resources, I want to know my dog and I are reasonably prepared. I’m perfectly happy to leave some things to chance but not when it comes to my dog understanding his job.

Tomorrow, Phoenix and I are off to the Laura Romanik seminar at DMOTC. I am TOTALLY looking forward to 3 days away from the real world!


  1. Another GREAT post!! I'm having to work through a lot of this stuff with Falkor right now. Trying to take it a day at a time!

    We'll see you this weekend! I have an audit spot on Saturday and Sunday. I can't wait too!!

  2. Corrections have gotten a bad rep over the years. They don't have to be harsh or abusive. My trainer says that corrections are merely a way of giving a dog information. Dogs need information!

  3. I love the corrections post more than the rest - which I didn't think was possible! I wish more people understood that corrections aren't the same as brutalizing your dog. They are, like you said, giving information.

    I forgot who said it, but I read a wonderful analogy in Front & Finish. They said, imagine your child is in school. The teacher asks them, "What is 2+2?" And your child answers, "7." Wouldn't you want the teacher to correct your child? Wouldn't you want your child to be shown the correct way to solve the question?

    I'm pro-corrections, but I'm also pro-common sense. If Layla sniffs while we're heeling, I don't need to give a big correction. If we're heeling and she lunges at another dog (she wouldn't, but let's pretend), I'll make sure she gets the message that that is NOT acceptable. There's a time and place for everything. But it IS possible, and quite important, to give corrections while still respecting your dog.

  4. I've been enjoying your honesty and wonderful posts on your training of Phoenix but I feel like I'm misunderstanding what you're trying to say in this article.

    I completely agree that dog's need feedback, right and wrong and that corrections aren't evil. But isn't aborting the exercise and restarting it feedback, and thus a "correction?" I see it in a different light as simply giving a 2nd command.

    But my bigger confusion is your statement that without corrections you will likely end up with a dog who realizes there is no help/rewards and does what he wants. Since there are no external rewards AND no corrections in the ring how do giving corrections solve the problem of a dog losing their support system?

  5. A very fine trainer/teacher turned me on to your blog.

    I am waiting with interest to read what specific corrections you are applying for what mistakes.

    I've always considered that the eventual need for a few selected corrections was the "dirty little secret" of clicker training. Or maybe it was just that my clicker technique wasn't good enough.

    I am also curious whether you have thought about what will happen when your new support system is taken away: no corrections are allowed in the ring. Will this not also produce confusion? This was always one of the attractive things about the R+ training: since you didn't train with correction (by and large, as noted above) anyway, there was no revelation for the dog about not receiving corrections in the ring. You just go and train the thing better with your clicker (or whatever).

    It is occurring to me, after several discussions with different people, after reading your blog and after experiencing the young dog that I am now training, that the first dog that I showed that was 100% clicker trained for all her long life, also happens to be a brilliant, no-quit, long attention span dog who didn't present me with the challenge of dying off for no reward in the ring.

    My response to my new challenge was to make sure I gave the dog a lot of "duration" training (many minutes with no treat).

    Reading and listening, I see the value in attempting to make yourself "higher value" in the absence of toys or treats. But why doesn't duration training work?

    One has to answer the question of what to do if the dog makes a mistake during the non-food period, and up till now my answer has been ignore it and continue, then re-train that thing separately and put it back together for another duration session.

    Mind you, I am not arguing. I am thinking about what you are doing, thinking "out loud." I lack the experience of carrying a dog through an OTCH, (though I have assorted other experience) and I am sure this gives you perspective that I lack.

  6. I've been watching this blog for awhile and have encouraged others to read it. I'm saddened by the direction that I believe Phoenix's training is about to go, however. In the end, neither corrections nor rewards are allowed in the ring, so while I'd imagine that Phoenix might learn that he has no choice, it's hard for me to understand why that would make him suddenly enjoy the work because he "understands his job". Doing it correctly and enjoying it are different things.
    The part that isn't being addressed in these posts, nor in the comments, is GENETICS. There is a reason why Goldens and herding breeds bred for obedience dominate the OTCH obedience rankings - they work to work, or for the relationship they get with their partners, even when they realize nothing good or bad happens in the ring. Obviously not all of them, but there is a genetic component to a joyful OTCH dog. At some point...isn't it worth asking whether to ask a dog to do something that they genuinely dislike doing? I'm not talking about getting some obedience titles. I'm talking about OTCH level competition.
    I got my OTCH without ever correcting my dog - and then I retired her because I believed that she genuinely didn't enjoy competition. She did it for me because she was well trained and because she wants to please me - she had a genetic package that made that possible.

    I also struggled with the issues you are going through with Phoenix. I found the answer for each of my dogs - and the answers were different for each of them. And it's possible that what is working for us today won't work tomorrow. But my determination to do it in a way that maintains my relationship with my dog - our joy in working together, comes before the OTCH.
    Of course, I see plenty of others in the ring who have convinced their OTCH dogs that they have no choice about competition. And it shows. I never want to be in the ring with a dog that actively dislikes it and does it because they have no choice.

  7. Corrections are information given in order to be able to do a job correctly and earn a reward. Who wouldn't want that? Enjoy your seminar with Laura, she gives a great one!