From the Field Editor

Effective Corrections

A Necessary Part of a Field Training Program

The job description of a field dog is to be able to quickly and efficiently retrieve to hand the bird it is sent for. Whether a dog is retrieving a mark or a blind, it should go out stylishly, take a clean line, find the bird quickly and return with it to the handler.

The sport of "Field Trialing" is all based on the word "FETCH", no matter how long the retrieve is; what kind of cover or terrain; whether working into the wind, cross-wind or with the wind; whether the dog sees the bird thrown or is handled to a blind. In order to achieve this the handler must have an organized training program broken into stages, each stage including steps, so that the dog can advance from the simple retrieve to the complex. While the training program is not carved in stone it acts as a guidepost for training. As part of this program one of the strongest elements of training is the well-timed, appropriate correction. This article will focus on corrections in great detail so that you can review corrections in your own program then adapt the program to include effective corrections wherever necessary.

Some Benefits of Effective Corrections

Corrections help the dog out. They help make clear that which the dog is unsure of. An example of this is the use of a crop to correct a horse when riding. I recently was teaching my mare the Dressage movement, Shoulder in. During this movement the horse is on a slight angle while moving forward (rear close to the rail of the arena and shoulder angled toward the center), rear legs tracking forward, and front crossing over while going forward. When this movement is executed properly you will see 3 sets of footprints left in the sand of the arena. If the horse is going around the rail of the arena clockwise prints are made by the right front hoof, both the left front hoof and the right rear hoof, and left rear hoof. A horse would normally leave 2 sets of prints, l for the right side of the horse and one for the left side, when going forward in a straight position. "Honeybee" was confused and, therefore had a hard time with this drill. Since she wouldn't keep her rear to the rail I tapped her the right side of her hindquarters with the crop while continuing to cue her for Shoulder In. The tap with the crop did not replace the cue, it just reinforced it. This action on my part explained to her that she must move her rear over and keep it out at the arena rail while she kept her shoulders slightly in toward the center of the arena. In this position her body was on a slight angle to the arena rail when she moved forward. This positioning was necessary to get the crossing over of her front feet but not her hind. Immediately after the correction she moved her rear away from the tap of the crop and understood that she must keep it nearer the arena wall. As soon as she did this her front legs crossed while her hind tracked straight. This correction was an explanation to her, not a punishment.

When animals are being trained to perform a specific feat they can make good choices or bad choices. Bad choices are usually the result of a dog, like my horse, being confused about what it is asked to do. The message the dog receives from the handler is unclear so it makes a choice of what to do, and it is often wrong. A well-timed correction will clear up in the animal's mind the difference between these choices. For example, if a dog has a breaking problem and you run him on a short rope to correct this problem, than the dog will soon learn that the bad choice was to break and the good choice is to wait till sent for the retrieve. You don't have to do anything but stand and hold the rope. The dog will be correcting himself every time he breaks.

After the dog has learned what you want from him, the occasional correction will help refine the dog's performance. One of the problems I often run into is a dog that "knows it all" and stops paying attention when I train him. He will be fine as long as the tests are simple, but once they become more difficult and include a variety of different conditions (wind, land, cover, etc.), he will become sloppy if he tries to figure out what to do while he is simultaneously trying to complete the retrieve. This kind of dog benefits from a training program which constantly uses a variety of conditions so that he doesn't slip into "automatic pilot" and start mentally doodling. The handler must have a "basket of tricks" (different exercises and drills that accomplish the same goal) so that the dog will stay focused during training and won't "tune out" because he is bored. A well-timed correction will also help to keep this dog more "honest" and focused on the training in progress.

High standards produce a flashy worker. Set high standards from the start, since even if your dog is beginning to learn a simple retrieve you want the dog to complete it accurately and with style. The expectation for a quality performance will remain as a constant while the tests get more complex. You will make allowances for the mistakes of a dog that is just learning a new skill, but that doesn't alter the fact that the end product is to be sharp and clean. Corrections help to produce this kind of performance. If you want the dog to be focused than you must be focused too. This is most evident in the equestrian sports. How is the horse to know what you want him to do if you are not constantly saying to the horse through the use of your legs, seat and hands "I want you to go here, at this gait". The dog will only give you what you ask for, therefore, by remaining focused during the training sessions you will be keeping your expectations for the dog's performance high throughout the session, and will not be allowing these expectations, hence the dog's performance, to slide. Corrections are the tools that help you to maintain the standard of excellence.

Phases of Training

Phase I - Teaching the Dog

During this first phase of training you will be explaining to your dog just what you want him to do and how you want him to do it. Since you will be presenting new concepts to the dog or combining concepts it already knows into a new drill, it is necessary that your presentation be as clear and simple as possible. Corrections have a place in the teaching phase of training, HOWEVER, MOST CORRECTIONS ARE TO CORRECT YOU (YOUR PRESENTATION OF THE TEST), NOT THE DOG. If the dog doesn't understand, you will know this by the dog's inability to follow your directions. A confused dog is not one that needs a harsh correction because this will only make him tense and more confused. It is more important that you simplify the test and be very clear about what you are asking the dog to do than it is to punish the dog for not understanding. For example, when you are teaching a dog to back-pile the dog is sitting facing you with a pile of bumpers directly behind him. Your goal is to have the dog respond correctly to a signal from your right hand by turning to his left (the dog is a mirror image of you), and heading toward the pile once the signal is given. If the dog incorrectly turns to his right instead of your right at this point let him go and do not correct him. He will think that he was correct but that is ok, for you will repeat the test immediately. This time you will make sure that what you are asking him to do will be clearer than it was the first time. On this second attempt the correction is a change of how you will present the drill to the dog by repositioning yourself to stand to the left side of the dog (his left) rather than in front of him, always keeping his focus on you. This time when you give the hand signal to send the dog (with your right hand) you will also run a few feet back towards the pile. The dog should then correctly turn to his left (toward you) and also run back to the pile, following your lead.

While there are some corrections that the trainer gives when in the teaching phase they are infrequent. More effort is spent on redefining what you expect from your dog. This process will continue until the dog finally understands. Remember you want the dog to have a positive attitude and this can only occur when the dog feels good about himself because he has successfully completed the retrieve.

Phase II - Reinforcing the Training

This is the phase of training where the dog understands what you are asking him to do but occasionally makes mistakes such as the one described above. Now your initial response will be to correct these mistakes rather than explain them in a clearer fashion. You are expecting the dog to remember from day to day what he has learned and, from time to time, if he should forget, or if he refuses to follow your direction, you will remind him with a correction.

You want your dog to make some mistakes, since these corrections are necessary to help reinforce learning. How many times have you heard the expression "Learn by your mistakes". This is true for dogs as well as people.

When you set up a test be prepared to correct the dog, if necessary, and have the proper tools at hand. In the diagram above the dog is running on a long line, such as a tracking lead or a rope (25 - 30 feet). In the reinforcing phase of teaching back-piling you would not reposition yourself, but rather, stop the dog with the use of the lead and a sharp "NO!" then send the dog again. At this point you would not like to stop the dog often because it could develop a "popping problem" (the dog turning and looking for another command to go after he has been sent). Therefore repositioning yourself would be the next step at correcting this problem if the dog still makes a mistake. Maybe you lengthened the test too soon or maybe you brought the dog along too quickly, or maybe the dog is just strong willed and defiant. Whatever the reason, going back to explain what you are asking him to do is appropriate at this time. You want to be sure that he understands before you go on.

We once had a dog that started popping when we lined him to the bumper pile. Our first step at correcting the problem was to be clearer about what we wanted him to do. We shortened the distance and marked the bumper pile with a white Clorox bottle. He still popped. This dog wasn't confused, but rather he was dominant and didn't want to follow direction. Now that we knew that he knew what we wanted him to do, but was refusing to do it, we lined him again using the e-collar to correct him when he popped. He flew to the pile and never questioned when he was sent again.

Phase III - Proofing the Dog

During this phase you take the test that the dog knows thoroughly and first lengthen the test. Initially you will use white bumpers to make sure the dog can see the marks, but soon you will switch to orange. Then you will move it to different terrain, with different cover, and different wind conditions. This is the phase that flushes out any problems the dog might have performing the test. If you find problems step back and simplify the test to clear up any confusion the dog might have before you go forward again. However if your dog knows what you want him to do but refused to do it than a sharp correction should help him. Assessing the dog and the situation will tell you if and what correction to use.

Know Your Dog

As I mentioned earlier, assessment of a situation is the only way to know whether to correct the dog or to explain the test more clearly. Too many people jump to correcting the dog in the harshest fashion without ever assessing the cause of the mistake. A dog that refuses to listen is quite different than a dog that is confused but wants to please. If the dog is to be corrected you need to know how to correct it effectively. The rule of thumb is to use only as much force as necessary to get its attention and gain its respect. For some dogs this will be a sharp "NO"! For others it will be a #5 on the e-collar. You don't want to destroy the dog; you only want attention and respect, so knowing the dog is the best gage of this. Too severe a correction can terrorize a dog and too mild a correction is nagging the dog, which will not result in a change of behavior for the dog. We were once training 3 dogs that needed very different kinds of corrections: Sunny, Storm and Ryan. Sunny needed to be watched constantly since he had a habit of taking over and doing what he pleased. Sunny's corrections had to be severe and they needed to occur the moment he took liberty to do what he pleased. Storm needed a firm correction whenever he made a mistake but it wasn't severe. Ryan, on the other hand, was a "soft" Golden and a gentle "no" would usually suffice. If you corrected him to strongly he would over-correct himself and shut down. If for example he was breaking before he was sent to retrieve a mark, than a severe correction would cause him to sit there when sent, waiting for at least two signals before he would depart for the retrieve. Since "freezing" is worse than breaking, this was not something anyone would want to create by correcting him more severely than he needed.

Praise is part of training too, and the number of corrections a dog receives should be ideally balanced out with the same number of times you praise the dog for a job well done. Don't forget to let it know that it was right. "Good Dog" goes a long way toward creating a willing worker.

Anticipation - Help or Hindrance?

Anticipating a command actually works in your favor during the initial phase of training. As an example of this I will go back to "Honeybee" and describe an experience I had with her when training her to do the "Shoulder In". They have an old saying, "stop a horse in the same spot twice and you have just TAUGHT him to stop there". Horses have great memories and sometimes it is an asset and sometimes it is a liability. When I was training Honeybee to do Shoulder In I had her make a 10-meter circle at the end of the arena, between the quarter lines. After one complete circle we would go straight on the quarter line towards the middle of the arena. I would then ask for Shoulder In until we reached the other end of the arena. One time I was going around the rail of the arena and wanted to change direction. When I got to the quarter line at one end of the arena I wanted her to go diagonally across the arena to the other end and then change direction. She was at the spot were I asked for Shoulder In just a minute before, so she started to do a Shoulder In. When I realized what she was doing I let her do it without correcting her, and next time I came around to the same spot I was clearer in my directions to her so that she did go diagonally across the arena to change direction. The anticipation of Shoulder In initially helped her get the idea of what I wanted her to do so it was a "good" anticipation. However, later it could have become a problem. In order to eliminate "problem" anticipation it is helpful to correct just before the expected anticipation may take place so that the animal listens to you and doesn't just automatically perform.

Tools for an effective Correction

Natural Tools - There are several. Your voice, a sharp "NO!" or "eh-eh" will do a lot to correct a Golden. Most Goldens want to please the handler so a verbal correction will often be effective. Use of hands (clicking your fingers to show a dog where you want it to be, etc.), your feet or legs (defining the spot the dog should be or gently booting the dog if it is out of position), Your body (blocking the dog from running in a certain direction when you send it for the retrieve) are all very effective aids to training. Needless to say the ear-pinch using your fingers is the hallmark of the force fetch program.

Artificial Tools - Some of the artificial aids used in training the dog are the leash and collar, the crop, and the e-collar. While all of these aids are very effective at defining what you are asking the dog to do they should be used sparingly. Overuse can make your dog fearful, and remember, we are not punishing the dog, just redefining the command.

Necessary Essentials for an Effective Correction

  1. Understand Your Dog - as stated above this is the most important factor in giving an effective correction
  2. Phase of Training the Dog is In - this makes the difference as to your choice of explanation or correction
  3. Timing - If a dog is to be corrected the correction must be instantaneous. Remember my use of the crop with "Honeybee". I tapped her immediately when I asked her to do Shoulder In when she wasn't keeping her rear at the rail. This helped her to understand that this is what she was to do, thereby allowing her to cross over with her front legs.
  4. Coordination - Sometimes the correction has more that one step and it must be coordinated so that it will be effective. Your coordination must be precise since some corrections could throw you off balance.
  5. Planned Intervention - needless to say a correction should be carefully thought out before you ever get to the line. It should be appropriate to the problem and should occur automatically. It should never be as the result to an angry reaction over something your dog did that seemed stupid or embarrassed you in front of your training partners. Corrections born out of anger could destroy weeks of good training experiences and, if harsh enough, could sour a talented dog forever. Remember, we are involved in Field Trialing, running Hunt Tests or Working Certificates and Working Certificate Excellent because we are part of a sport and it is certainly not sportsman-like to be cruel.

As you can see by reading this article the specific correction is simple but the assessment of the problem is complex.

This article originally appeared in the Golden Retriever News, official magazine of The Golden Retriever Club of America.

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