Tuesday, August 2, 2011

About confusion

Another installment of correction vs confusion. Today’s topic: the confused dog.

In other words, the dog knows his job well enough to qualify part of the time but it isn’t the confident, pretty performance you want and it frequently falls apart completely. All the while you keep telling yourself, “But he KNOWS how to do this.”

Well, obviously he doesn't.

When things went south with Phoenix’s ring performance, this was the hardest part for me to accept — that what I thought I had taught him and what he actually learned were two very different things.

This falls under the category of “Stuff I cannot correct because my dog doesn’t know how to be right in the first place.” This is the category most of my training issues fall into. I wish I could say that through the years I’ve become a brilliant trainer who always avoids making mistakes like this in the first place and never screws up her dog in the name of training but that’s clearly not true. I CAN say I’m not making the same mistakes twice, I’m making brand new ones!

One of our biggest problems in the ring has been the death march (walk back). Phoenix didn’t walk every exercise in every show. He just walked at random. Of course, I made all sorts of excuses for the behavior and blamed it on the vague “ring stress” problem and thought when I solved the “ring stress,” the walk backs would magically cure themselves.

It WAS ring stress causing the walk backs but the root of that stress was confusion about how he was supposed to do the exercise, so until I addressed that, it wasn’t going to get any better.

I suppose some people would just go ahead and give a traditional recall correction for a walk back — going to the dog and jerking the collar forward while repeating “Come!” — but I know Phoenix well enough to know he would see that as a very confrontational approach, which would either confuse him even more or possibly cause him to bolt in total avoidance, neither of which was going to fix anything.

Besides, it was my fault he hadn’t learned it right in the first place. I didn’t want to make him pay for my oversight by getting on his case.

Hindsight being what it is, I totally believe I trained the walk back. Unintentionally, of course, but I don’t think I could have done a better job if I’d deliberately set out to teach him to do it on purpose. In training, as he returned to me from any kind of recall or retrieve exercise I ran backwards, let him chase me, threw cookies, threw toys, cheered, clapped, jumped up and down and generally acted like an idiot. OF COURSE he trotted or ran back to me. In the ring, I stood silently with my hands at my sides.

Poor Phoenix. He’d never seen that picture before. (Well, okay, he HAD seen it in training, but not often.) No doubt he was thinking, “WTF did I do wrong? She’s not moving.” I thought my smiling stationary silence was encouraging. He thought it meant he was wrong. No wonder he wasn't in a hurry to get back to me.

Clearing up this confusion has been our biggest summer re-training project. It’s actually been a good problem to have since it plays into so many different exercises that once I get the overall concept back on solid ground, it SHOULD improve every single exercise that includes the dog returning to the handler from a signal, retrieve or jumping exercise. Which in Open and Utility is pretty much all of them.

First, I had to make it a point for Phoenix to see me STANDING STILL as he returned. He needed to understand his speed on the return was not dependent on my motion or on a food or toy being thrown. There’s nothing wrong with running backward or throwing food or toys while teaching recalls but I’d used them so long they had become a crutch. If they weren’t there, Phoenix didn’t understand he still needed to come in briskly. Next dog, I’ll fade them much earlier and/or use them much more randomly. I just gave Phoenix too much of a good thing.

Using a tracking line, I left him on a sit, went about 30 feet away, stood still, called him and gave him a little pop on the line immediately after I called. A LITTLE pop. NOT a jerk and YES, there is a difference, at least in my mind. A pop is quick and informative. A jerk is an angry, powerful reaction. Please don't tell me I'm a horrible person for giving my 53 pounds of solid muscle dog a little tug on his collar.

The pop initiated a return speed faster than a walk. It wasn't necessarily a dead run but I am willing to negotiate on that at this point. I can't fix everything at once. Once Phoenix was up and moving briskly, I dropped the line and ignored it, didn’t try to gather it up or anything. Initially, I gave lots of verbal praise once he was moving but kept my feet still. When I made part of the exercise harder for him (me not moving, no food, no toys), I had to balance it with another element to help him succeed - thus the verbal praise. I was quickly able to fade the verbal encouragement once the brisk return came back into the picture and Phoenix could be responsible for trotting in without either a pop or verbal cheerleading.

When I started working this, Phoenix really didn’t get it. When I gave him the standing still “ring picture” he gave me what he thought was the “ring response” — walking in. It was frustrating for both of us but it was a relief to have him do it in training so I could finally address it. If I’d gone back to lobbing cookies and toys around, OF COURSE he would have come racing in. You can “motivate” all you want but some dogs are such literal thinkers they believe it’s a totally different exercise when the “motivators” are out of the picture.

And no, if you’d told me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. My previous dogs were fine with the cheese and tennis balls disappearing. They didn’t care and continued to work well in the absence of visible rewards. For Phoenix, I might as well have started speaking Swahili. Again, our bottom line was “Is my dog working for the cheese or is he working for me?” If the performance heads south when the cheese disappears, there’s your answer.

More on correction vs. confusion in the future.


  1. We're dealing with some "I never properly taught it in the first place anyway" too, regarding our fronts. Layla has the "I'm supposed to come briskly and happily toward you...in your general vicinity" down, but the sitting close and center isn't there. So we're going alllll the way back to the 6-inch fronts and recall games. I can't believe how different behaviors can become when you don't notice (intentionally or not) imperfections. Oh well!

  2. Hey thanks Melinda, I'm going to try this. But, I don't know - after years of allowing the 'death march' in practice, I'm not sure anything will get Jackson going! All the advice I ever got on speeding up his returns was the usual - cheer leading, running, clapping, jumping up and down, treats, etc. And, you're right, it doesn't carry over into the ring, or anytime I'm standing still for that matter. Hmmm... worth a try.

  3. This is an interesting point that I had never thought of (walk to the stationary person instead of run). I am going to check this with my dog and remain aware of it going forward. What happens if you simply shape the faster return without the pop on the long line? I'm thinking there must be some distance from you at which he would feel motivated to move faster than a walk. Click the fast gait, not the arrival. Then begin moving closer, reinforcing only the faster efforts, clicking during the fast gait. Then move far, far away again and add carrying a dumbbell to you. Repeat the process. I am not saying that popping the collar is hurting the dog.... but every time I push or pull on my dog, I get opposition reflex, so it seems to me that could set him back on his heels, so to speak, instead of leaning forward to make speed. Note: I have never tried what I am talking about, but the discussion has made me think there would be nothing to lose by trying it this way.

  4. I tried to leave this comment a few days ago but i have trouble with blogger and comments... so here goes again.

    Far be it for ME to tell you how to train YOUR dog. (ie: corrections). He's your dog. you know him best. As a person who uses correction as one tool in a basket full of tools in training, i'll never understand how we live in a world filled with consequences for our behaviors, positive, negative and punishing. if i don't pay my mortgage, my house gets taken away. i rob a bank, i get jailed. So how come nobody gives me a cookie for NOT robbing a bank? I wanna know the answer to that. ;) Anyway how is it my dog has to live in a different world than me? That said, i completely get the "confusion." Nothing said it more when i was teaching a Schutzhund retrieve to Loki. He completely understood getting the dumbbell and bringing it to me. he NO idea how to sit and hold it until i told him to give it to me. it was completely obvious to me he knew how to sit. he knew how to put something in his mouth but "sit AND hold?" that was something NEW. so i marker trained the "sit and hold" and back chained it and now i have a real pretty retrieve. I actually don't compete but it's fun none-the-less. On the other hand, when I was training him for his "iron dog" competition (a silly school non- AKC or Schutzhund competition), he had to get in the car from 30 feet away from an "at large" position (at play, doing whatever he pleased, not from a working position and among other dogs at large as well). he would do it once but not the 2nd time where we had to call the dog out and send him back in again. Now mind you, he KNEW exactly what i wanted as we did this kind of game with crate training. I'd call him out and send him back in and he'd nail it every time. I could do it from another room even and he'd still go into his crate. AND he would do it (go back into the car) from a closer distance. but adding more distance, once i'd call him out, he'd simply lose drive and simply NOT do it. I was 105% sure he knew what i wanted after having done it under many other conditions and in other contexts. I could see he just lost interest at that point and he just didn't want to do it. There was no confusion. I finally gave in and used the correction tool for that one behavior. A simple collar pop. Nothing harsh, but enough for him to know what it meant and not want it. and lo and behold, i had a really nice out of the car-back into the car behavior. or into the car under any circumstance behavior. That was the ONE behavior holding us back on the iron dog and it was the collar pop that cinched it for me. out of 12 dogs who participated, only 5 received the certificate. It's not an easy competition and in some ways a bit more stressful as there are other dogs on the field doing it simultaneously. so you had fear of dog naughtiness to contend with. oh joy. but we nailed it and I'll never feel bad for popping his collar when he needs it. I still watch our video from that day and I could tell he was as proud to finish the competition as I was and he jumped for joy after it was over. watching the video i could see him enjoying every aspect of the competition too. he enjoys working but like everyone else, sometimes just loses drive.

    No, you won't be getting a lashing from ME on correction. And sadly I won't be getting a cookie for NOT robbing a bank. sigh.

  5. I've thought a lot about this issue. At a seminar last month Denise Fenzi suggested that I condition my silence and a smile to mean that the dog is correct.

  6. That sounds like something Denise would suggest! Loki and I got the honor of training with her for a handful of sessions before I moved to Switzerland. We were thinking of going for the B certificate but it was too much planning to move and train. We had all the behaviors, just needed polishing. She is inspiring, which is why I got the pretty "retrieve" i wrote about above. She taught me to think in that way and to be fast with the marker sound and reward delivery. tho I have to admit I do still add in correction when I'm all out of ideas and feel 100% sure he knows the behavior. Still, she was probably our best teacher and I wish we had more time with her.