Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Corrections, Part I

Training has been a real pain in the butt this week. We're living in one of the outer rings of Hell. I've been getting up at 5:30 a.m. to train and it's already 80 degrees with dew points that are higher than coastal Louisiana. By the time I get home from work in the afternoon, the heat index is about 110 degrees and it stays that way until well after sundown — forget doing anything outdoors. It's just plain miserable. Needless to say, we're not training a lot, just trying to work through a few things each session and calling it good.

In weather like this, it's easier to write about training than it is to train. So here you go.

When the treats and toys disappear in training, sooner or later your dog will make a mistake (usually a lack of effort error, since he’s not getting what he perceives to be any reinforcement). If you want him to understand that he has to do his job no matter what, you’ll need to make a correction.

Of course, no one WANTS to correct their dog. We would all prefer our dogs never make a mistake! Any of us who started training during the jerk and yank era probably have some pretty negative associations with corrections. It’s no wonder people start freaking out when they worry they'll have to “correct” their dog.

If you keep motivators like treats and toys present when you train, dogs are much less likely to make a mistake and handlers are much less likely to have to deal with it and everyone is happy. A side effect of too many cookies in training is a sense of false security that my dog really understands what I want him to do. Then we go in the ring and I can’t deliver on any of those “Do this and you’ll get a cookie” promises I've been making. And the wheels fall off. Or, as a friend said, "It was a dumpster fire."

When I took the food and toys out of the picture, Phoenix was confused. He was also pretty honked off. Some of his errors were from confusion but many were from lack of effort. So the corrections I give are a teaching tool to make performance expectations clear.

Your dog wants to know what you expect from him. When the cookies disappear, he may ask questions like, "What are you going to do if I don't retrieve?" or "What are you going to do if I do signals really slowly?" Any time your gives you a less than desirable response on an exercise he was sharp at before the cookies disappeared, he is asking a question. "Is this what you want?" "What if I do it this way?" Corrections will help him figure out that you still want the same thing you did when cookies were present.

What IS a correction?

• A correction is information that shows the dog what you want him to do.

• A correction should not hurt, frighten or demoralize a dog.

• A correction should communicate the idea “That was wrong, here’s how to be right.” Period. No huge emotional meltdown for either party.

• A correction only needs to be strong enough to get your point across; if it doesn’t make an impression, you’re just nagging your dog and that’s not going to fix anything.

• A correction addresses the problem at the point where the error occurred (for example: at the point of pickup on a retrieve or during a slow response to signals)

• It is better to make 1 effective correction than 6 naggy ones.

What is NOT a correction?

• Giving a second command - this only tells the dog not to worry about not doing it the first time because you’ll tell him again.

• Starting over - this doesn’t tell the dog what he did wrong, just that it didn’t really matter what he did because you’ll give him another chance.

• Motion by the handler in order to cause the correct response by the dog (like backing up and cheering to keep a dog from walking in or stepping forward when the dog hesitates to pick up a glove).

• Verbal rescues - similar to second commands but easily become a habit which ensures the dog never actually makes a mistake because you are constantly rescuing him before he gets to the point of error.


Stay tuned - there's more to come. I'll try to cover the basic corrections I am using, plus some I used that didn't work.


  1. I have two nit-picks about semantics that I think cause a lot of gap between R+ trainers and, well, everyone else. :)

    "He still gets cookies!" Getting treats outside of training doesn't mean anything. Dogs that don't get treats outside of training aren't abused, neglected, sad dogs. Dogs that never get treats, in training or out, probably don't really care. This is not something that I think really bothers them. Would they take them if offered? Probably. They're dogs, they're opportunistic scavengers. But saying that your dog still gets treats, just not for training doesn't change my feelings about how you train your dog. Just something I've heard from more than one correction trainer that bugs me.

    "A CORRECTION IS NOT PUNISHMENT! IT IS INFORMATION!" This, I think, is the big one. First of all, the first Operant Conditioners really should have chosen a less emotionally loaded word. Because there isn't anything terribly awful about punishment. Punishment decreases behavior. If you have a dog that is tipping over garbage cans, and you do something and later the dog stops tipping over garbage cans, you have punished tipping over garbage cans (well, maybe you extinguished it, but go with me here). You could have done that through lighting the dog up every time he got near one, or you could have done it by putting him in a crate for three minutes every time he went near one. So if a correction is designed to keep a dog from making that mistake again, it IS punishment. It is not necessarily abuse, but it is decreasing the frequency of some kind of behavior.

    In general, I would like to see people on both sides of the fence stop freaking out so much about that word. If everyone would at least start by giving other dog trainers the benefit of the doubt that they probably don't hate dogs and get satisfaction by abusing them in the name of training, we might be able to have more meaningful discussions about the art and science of dog training.

    These aren't really gripes about YOU, I do want to say again how informative and interesting I've found this series, and I am rooting for both of you to find a solution!

    But now I do have two questions specific to your situation. :)

    What kind of collar is Phoenix wearing? Is it a training/showing specific collar or an all-the-time-always collar?

    I know some of the higher level exercises require quite a bit of set up, but have you ever asked him to perform obedience commands in daily life? IE "Fetch" the pen I dropped, "heel" across the street, "Jump" that log not this one?

  2. Interesting points about language and the understanding (or mis-understanding) it brings to training. Words can have a lot of baggage and they color our own perception of what we are doing.

    Phoenix works on a buckle collar very similar to his "every day" collar. I don't do much with "traditional" collar corrections (i.e., pop and jerk), so rarely use a choker. Training on a pinch (which I have done occasionally but not often) seems to be counter productive if he's only responding to the collar and when it's gone, so is the behavior.

    I do try to work some bits of exercises into daily life - especially asking him to do signals at random around the house and yard on the spur of the moment. I have to be careful when doing this because if he DOESN'T comply, I have to stop and enforce it - so not to be undertaken casually if there's no time to back things up. But a good way to help him understand a signal or command means the same thing, all the time, no matter where.

  3. These posts keep getting better and better.

    Speaking of semantics, I appreciate your use of the word "motivators" in stead of "positive based". There are so many trainers that use "positive" training methods that are really only using cookies or toys. I accidentally used that term once with someone and he CORRECTED me saying "the dog is being positive" meaning that the dog had a positive attitude during the training session. This came from one of the best trainers I know - he almost never uses cookies or toys in training (or remote collars or chains/pinches), and he has the happiest, most well trained and social dogs I know. AND he works primarily with shelters dogs on the E list.

    I think that was one of the best lessons I've learned so far that the dog's attitude towards the training is the key - assuming that you aren't being abusive with your training methods. As trainers, we strive to find the right motivators for our dogs, and I appreciate all this information about US being the biggest motivators in training. There are so many times throughout my day that where I only use "good boy" and it is good enough for my dog in those cases. I'm excited to incorporate some of that into more *formal* training sessions - emphasis on formal as most of our training is done on our hikes and in play.

  4. Dang, it's not a second command? LOL I better get out of that habit! ;)