This is long. Sorry. See what happens when I don't blog for a couple of days? My head gets so full of stuff I have to do a brain dump.
The Laura Romanik seminar was great! Possibly the best part was her use of detailed handouts that reflected the topics she covered so I could actually pay attention to what she was saying and doing instead of trying to scribble 100 pages of notes that I probably wouldn’t be able to read after the fact anyway.
Got some great new ideas to try. Of course, I’m not going to run out and change the way I train everything but there are a few things I can implement and I'm looking forward to working them into my training with Phoenix.
Ironically - or coincidentally - she did a great segment on corrections: when and how to use them and why they are important. I can’t repeat her entire seminar here but if you get a chance to see her, it’s worth the time and money.
Interesting comments from readers on the “Are corrections really necessary?” post! Honestly, every single point you guys have made has been bouncing around in my head during the last month, since I’ve overhauled the way Phoenix and I are training.
I’ll address some of those comments and try to make my thoughts clearer. I stand by my belief that corrections are an important part of obedience training if you want to achieve anything beyond a CD or if you want to achieve competitive scores at any level. Like many of you have said — and it bears repeating — they're not harsh or abusive. They're just an information route.
A correction is information about what you’re doing wrong and how to do it right. Imagine trying to learn a new job. You’ve been working at it for awhile and think you understood just how it should go. Your boss looks at your work, throws it out and says, “Start over and maybe you’ll get it right this time.”
Not too helpful, huh? If your boss had pointed out the place where you had made the mistake, you could remember not to make that mistake again. In the future, if you made different mistakes, your boss would be there to point them out, allowing you to eventually master the task at hand and be able to do it confidently and correctly, knowing exactly how it should be performed. That’s what I want from my dog: I want him to know exactly what I expect and for him to be able to do it truly independently, with only one command - no repeated commands, do-overs or cookie waving. And yes, I totally admit I’ve fallen short on this with Phoenix. Lessons learned. My previous dogs were incredibly tolerant of my bad training habits!
Different dogs need different types and levels of correction. I believe there ARE dogs out there who need little or no correction while others will question everything you ask them to do for their entire career. My sheltie Connor was one of the former. I am starting to think Phoenix is one of the latter. Jamie fell somewhere in the middle.
One reader asked how will corrections solve the problem of a dog losing his “support system” when we get in the ring where neither corrections nor treat/toy rewards are allowed? By correcting the dog for errors in training, the dog learns what is the right response and what is the wrong response. It erases the gray area of confusion. A dog who knows how to do the job will be confident when he goes into the ring and won’t NEED a support system to help him perform beyond what the handler can give with verbal praise, petting and body language. I think this is a state of nirvana that a lot of dog and handler teams never reach. They go into the ring in a constant agony of worry, lacking the trust and confidence that YES, their dog totally understand what to do.
Another reader mentioned the genetic factor when it comes to a dog’s trainability. She was right on! It’s no accident that many of the top OTCh. dogs in the country are from the same kennels or that when ultra competitive trainers look for a puppy, they go to kennels known for producing high-achieving dogs. That’s not saying these are going to be “easy OTChs” but it’s going to be easier to put an OTCh. on a golden retriever with three generations of OTChs on both sides of the pedigree than on one from, say, conformation lines only and no history of performance titles. Not saying that can't be done but the dogs from OTCh. lines have traits that make them highly suitable to the demands of training for that level of competition.
Most of us trainers, OTCh. and non-OTCh. alike, simply train the dog we have. We buy a dog because we like the breed, we have established a relationship with the breeder, someone else recommended the breeder, they have healthy dogs, etc. Sure, we put some time into researching pedigrees but the bottom line is we get our dogs not because we want an “easy OTCh.” but because we want to share our lives with this particular breed, for whatever reason.
None of my dogs have been chosen because they had a long string of performance titles behind both the dam and sire. Knowing that, I realize it’s largely up to ME to produce the motivation, compulsion, desire, etc. that will turn us into a winning team.
One more question from the comments: what if Phoenix makes a mistake during the non-food stage of our training? If it’s not an NQ-ing mistake, right now I’m letting it slide. Our bigger picture is stringing together a successful, passing performance in all exercises. I’ll get back to the precision element later. Yeah, I care about heeling bumps and crooked fronts but I don’t care about them right now!
If he makes an NQ mistake (doesn’t drop on signals, for example) I have to ask myself: was he not trying (result - correction) or is he really confused and doesn’t know what to do (result - pull this part of the training OUT of the non-food work and work on it individually. A bare minimum of food can return at this time but only if the dog shows me genuine effort. Flooding him with treats is not going to suddenly make everything clear in his mind.)
BTW, I have brought toys and play back into our training picture on a limited basis. Phoenix has several exercises that are rock solid (did I really type that out loud? what am I thinking!?) and after a successful sequence of 2-3 exercises (done formally, front, finish, the whole works), I will release to a toy and play. But this is not a mid-exercise release and I’m not doing it with the intent to reward or build enthusiasm. It’s just play because I enjoy playing with my dog. More on that in future posts, too.
Oh, and several of you mentioned attitude: I absolutely agree - I do not want to show a dog in the obedience ring who does not want to be there. I want my dog to be happy when we train and show. No, correcting a dog is probably not going to make him “happy.” But think about this - if you were doing a job that you were very uncertain and hesitant about because you really didn’t understand how to do it properly, how happy would you be? What if someone stepped in and corrected you when you made mistakes? Believe me, I’ve been there! Being corrected didn’t make me happy either but it helped me learn the job. When I got good at the job, I was much happier and could truly enjoy the work and perform it well.
Please understand that my corrections are followed by genuine, sincere, heartfelt, honest, appreciative (help, I’m running out of adjectives) praise when he gets it right. I am not browbeating my dog. I don’t expect him to work like a golden retriever who wags his tail nonstop and is delirious about obedience. Phoenix is an insane nut around the house (flower pot on his head, stealing socks, etc.). He's serious when we go to train. He CAN be nutty in training, depending on the exercise. I think he'll get nuttier when our understanding of each other improves. I can live with that. If he were truly miserable, we'd stop this obedience game and do something else. But he's not. The journey continues.
Something I’d like to point out from Laura’s seminar and this is only MY interpretation, but if you have to correct for something more than twice in a row, you need to do something different with that particular skill - don’t just keep correcting the dog. Either make the exercise easier or go back and strengthen whatever part of it the dog is having an issue with. Repeatedly correcting without getting better results is going to create learned helplessness where the dog thinks, “I do not know what to do. I cannot win. I give up.” This is very sad.
Okay. There’s more to come. I just have to get my mind wrapped around what I want to say next.