Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Defining "corrections"

My goal for today is to clear up confusion about terminology and show a few examples of heeling corrections.

Let’s start with the C word itself. That seems to be the big sticking point — many folks think correction = punishment = pain. Little wonder people say no-no-no and run the other direction when it is suggested that correcting their dog would improve his performance. The word itself seems to be hard-wired to evoke unpleasant images, probably because we’ve all witnessed truly unpleasant things being done to dogs in the name of “correction.” That's the ugly extreme end of the spectrum and one I will avoid at all costs.

I don’t want to hurt my dog. And I won’t. For me, a correction might be more accurately described as a “redirection” or “do this instead” sort of action.

In trying to come up with a definition of “correction” that others won’t revolt against for the mere sake of the word, I wonder if I’ve unintentionally put too much emphasis on corrections as the solution to all training problems. They’re not. They’re only a part of it and I did not mean to give the impression they are the cure to every ill. The relationship you have with your dog, leadership (or lack of it), training methods, proofing, treats and play, plus what the dog brings to the table in terms of temperament and genetic mix form the big picture. It’s a balancing act and no single element should dominate the others. Leadership, relationship, training methods and play should take up considerably more of the pie than proofing, corrections or treats.

Each dog is an individual. I believe there are dogs out there who can be high achievers in the ring without many corrections in training. I know this because I’ve had them. Either the dog is a naturally bright learner (I think this was my case with Connor) or the trainer is exceptionally skilled in avoiding common trouble spots throughout the dog's career (hopefully, as trainers, the more dogs we train, the better we get at this).

But there are just as many (if not more) dogs who don't work that way. If you’ve only trained dogs who responded so well to positive methods that you never had to correct them in any way, shape or form, I truly hope you have a dog at some point in your life for whom those methods don't work. I’m not being mean but you will learn a lot more about training and about yourself from a dog who questions you than you do from the biddable dog who is content to always obey and never has an original thought of his own.

Once you feel your dog is “trained” and you take away the cookies and the toys to test the dog’s understanding of his job as he will perform it in the ring, the dog can make two kinds of mistakes. And yes, dogs WILL make mistakes in training. I don’t know any dog who is perfect in every single training session. Whether or not the handler recognizes these mistakes and chooses to do anything about them is another issue. It’s easy to let little errors in training slide or make excuses for them. They won’t fix themselves and a tiny error in training can easily lead to a HUGE error in the ring. Even if you don’t care about scores, ignoring errors in training can mean the difference between a leg and an NQ in the ring.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself as a trainer. If your dog makes a mistake when you pull the treats out of the picture, ask yourself, “Did I lay a solid foundation for this exercise and train it systematically without skipping steps so that it is reasonable to expect my dog to understand what I want even though I don’t have a hand full of cookies OR did I rush things and am I now assuming a level of proficiency that really does not exist and I just want to correct because it’s easier than putting the work into re-training?”

First, let me say I don’t want to use corrections to make my dog pay for my own screw ups when it came to training something right the first time. With that in mind, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt if I’m not sure if he’s not making the effort or if he’s confused. With Phoenix, I think most of his errors at this point stem from confusion. Seriously, if he honestly understands what to do, he has shown me he is willing to do it under a variety of circumstances. Distraction on heeling is the possible exception - although he knows his job is to watch me he is very keyed into the environment and hyper aware of sounds and motion. It's very hard for him to ignore his surroundings. That's just who he is and I accept that as a challenge we'll probably have his entire career.

If you feel your dog truly understands beyond a doubt what you expect of him, then his error is one of lack of effort and you can fairly give a correction. But don’t do it if you’re angry or you’re out to “teach him a lesson.” That’s not what it’s about!

If you can look back and see holes in the foundation training of the exercise or admit you may have rushed things, then the error is one of confusion — your dog really doesn’t understand what to do. Then it’s time to go back and strengthen that part of the exercise or maybe even do some re-training. This may or may not involve treats, your choice. Just remember that throwing cookies at a problem is not necessarily going to solve it. Use them wisely.

If your dog is making errors because he's scared, you have to resolve the fear issue first. You cannot correct a dog who is afraid of the environment, men in cowboy hats, baby strollers, etc. Some hard core trainers might argue the dog should be more concerned with the correction he will receive for not paying attention than anything a scary baby stroller might do but I do not buy that line of reasoning. It's thinking like that that gives corrections such a bad rap! Get the dog back on solid ground mentally first, then work on fixing the mistake.

This effort error vs. confusion error scenario is confusing because many of us are in the habit of assuming our dogs “know” the exercise when in reality they don't. It was a smack in the face this summer to realize that on a couple of exercises, Phoenix really did not know what to do, even though he had done them successfully enough in the ring to get a CDX and UD. (I’ll write about those, too, in the future.)

Okay, this is getting long but I want to write about a couple of the corrections I’m using so you can get a feel for what I’m talking about.

The thing with corrections is that not the same thing works on every dog. You might think these are silly but they’re working for us.

Remember, I don’t want a correction to be threatening, painful or frightening. If my dog finds it slightly annoying, that’s fine, maybe he’ll work a little harder to avoid it. Or if it makes me more interesting, even better!

Here are the two things I’m doing that have worked best.

1) If Phoenix drops his head or checks out on eye contact while we are either setting up or doing heelwork, I turn and run the opposite direction. I’ve been working him on a very light leash so he has to come with me because he's attached. There’s no jerking or yanking, I just run. I usually only run half a dozen steps. He catches up and gives me total eye contact. I ask him if he got lost. He looks at me like, “You are unpredictable and I need to watch you very closely.” His body language telegraphs interest in what might happen next, not concern.

2) My second correction (I use these alternately, depending on the situation), is this: I reach down and reposition his head with both hands, right hand under his muzzle, left hand at the back of his head. Fortunately, he is the perfect height for this. My hands are gentle but firm. Uh-oh, you looked away, now we will do the dreaded (tongue in cheek) head hold.

If we are heeling, I don’t stop, we keep moving. We heel around the building or the yard or wherever with me holding his head where I want it (actually a tiny bit higher than where he would normally carry it). I scold him verbally in a silly tone and ask “WHAT were you looking at?” But I’m not angry. I truly think having his head physically positioned embarrasses him. When I take my hands off, I might “bounce” him out ahead of me and break off the exercise. He understands being “bounced” and responds well to it. The head holding is annoying - the bounce is fun.

Those heeling corrections are for lack of effort errors. I have worked heeling with attention from Day One with Phoenix and truly expect him to understand what I want. It's not a new concept nor one that was taught hastily.

If he were confused (let's say we were heeling through a playground full of screaming children - honestly, we've NEVER done that before), I would set up at a distance and work stationary attention until he was confident about doing his job (watching). Then we would heel around the perimeter of the playground and call it good for the day.

Hopefully, my next post will explore confusion issues - and believe me, we have a couple dandy ones.


  1. Do I hear crickets???? ;)

    I think I was afraid to correct Falkor for a long time. And a correction for him can be as simply as saying "Opps not quite right".

    Falkor seems much happier now that I can make things clearer for him!

  2. I tend to think of corrections as "helping". With my previous dog, soemetimes he would choose not to sit on command, for example. And when that happened, I would gently but firmly help him to sit. As if he had truly lost his mind and forgotten how. Being helped like that was actually helpful in cases where he was honestly confused. But in cases where he was trying to exercise thhe option of not complying with a known command, I always got the impression that he found being helped humiliating.

    That dog I clicker trained the retrieve, and the only correction he ever needed his whole life was to be helped once, by having me walk out to the dumbbell, point at it and say take it. It was a different place, very busy, and he was either uncertain because of the setting or testing whether it was optional. In any case, that cleared it up for him.

    My current dog could not learn a formal retrieve thru clicker gaining, and I had to take an entirely different approach. But then he's a very different dog!

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  4. Melinda, I am thoroughly enjoying your on-going saga of The Retraining of Phoenix, and continue to share the links, hoping that I can help spread your story farther and wider. What you are going through is a problem I've had people ask for help with all over the country, and I've certainly been through some of it myself over the many years of competing in obedience. "Correction" is such a loaded word for so many people and I hope your explanation will help more people understand that corrections don't have to be cruel and painful, but simply informative.