Getting it Right

lab-weavesQ. How should I correct my Labrador Retriever, Blaze? When he gets something right I give him a treat or throw his toy, but what do I do if he gets it wrong? If he breaks a wait, jumps off a contact or misses a weave entry, I don’t want to yell at him or be mean.

A. I’m so glad to hear that! You should never abuse your dog. Mistakes are inevitable and an important part of the learning process. They’ll happen even though you try to make it easy for Blaze to get things right. Mistakes also occur because our performance criteria change in different environments. A paw-perfect dog in training will

break waits, miss weave entries, and jump off contacts in competition.

Types of correction There are different types of correction. Not all mistakes are serious offences. Use what is appropriate. Fit it to the error. Here are various options

Ignore it. It may never happen again.

Look the other way and shrug your shoulders. Withdrawing your attention cuts a dog right to the heart.

Mark the mistake with a phrase like ‘oh dear’ or ‘wrong’ so that Blaze will learn where he went wrong. Withhold his praise and rewards. Don’t give Blaze a treat or throw his toy if he gets it wrong. Try again and if Blaze gets it right, he gets his goodies.

Halt the game If agility is his thing, go to the end of the line in class. Or leave the building.

Get it right next time Mark the mistake and then show Blaze what you want. If he lies down when you left him in a sit wait, put him back in the sit. If he pops off the contact, put him back on it. If he misses a weave pole, take him back to where he came out. You can do this at your local agility club or at simulated shows. But be aware that if you do this at a competition, the judge will eliminate you for training in the ring or touching your dog. He will ask you to leave his ring.

Balance If Blaze needs correction make sure that it is balanced with praise. Don’t follow a strong wrong with a wishy-washy good boy. And if Blaze is putting a lot of effort into trying to get something right, put a lot of effort into your praise. For example, if Blaze keeps missing his target at the bottom of the A-frame, he will need a big, big reward when he finally gives it a nose touch. You’ve had a breakthrough!

Drastic Steps Don’t let desperation lead you to desperate measure. Rattling a can filled with pebbles or squirting water will certainly get Blaze’s attention. A puff of vapor from a remote citronella collar will stop him in his tracks. However, Blaze’s misdeed must be pretty evil before you would want to take such drastic steps and resort to something so negative. You don’t want him to be frightened of the agility equipment. If Blaze makes a mistake, don’t punish him. Correct him and show him how to win your love and approval next time.
Used with permission.
From Questions and Answers on Dog Agility Training, by Mary Ann Nester, T.F.H. Publications
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11 Comments on “Getting it Right

  1. You are allowed to train in the ring in ASCA and NADAC, to a reasonable extent. Generally if you begin training you may be asked to leave when you reach maximum course time.

  2. Oh, my prankster is a very soft dog, if you define soft as devastated by criticism. He can only deal with positive reinforcement. And staying one jump ahead of his creativity.

    I want to go back to what Karen said
    “… A good correction is one that is just enough to get the dogs attention to re-focus(each dog is different) and then it is gone as fast as it came…

    and then reference back to the JRT that was put in his crate for his sins.

    With some of the dogs I’ve owned, in some circumstances it takes a lot more than a shout or a command to get their attention and usually those situations are pretty urgent (like they’re seriously trying to kill each other, or the cat, or one of the horses – my dogs are not pc!). I’ve also noticed that for the worst offenses, the ones we really want to never see repeated, some time spent “in jail” is the most effective punishment once we have the behavior stopped, and if we can pick up on the dog’s intention to offend and put them in jail before they do, that really impresses them.

    • Definitely! The time you need them to come, they don’t, right?

      A lot of times time-out is an extremely effective punisher- but what about the dogs that then begin to avoid their crates at bedtime?

  3. What Laura says is absolutely true. I have a sheltie who is a very “soft” dog. He worries about getting things right so much that it sometimes causes him to slow down. Even saying “no” seems to break his heart, so if he does make a mistake I have to say “good try” in a happy voice and then, “Let’s do it again this way!”
    Dogs are so much like people; different teaching methods work best depending on the nature of the creature being taught. That is what makes teaching, parenting and working with dogs or horses so challenging.

  4. Well, I can think of a “heinours” crime that calls for max correction. It’s one dog using it’s teeth on another (and I don’t mean playing). If you’re managing a multi-dog household, there will be times………

    What is more interesting to me is whether the dog will connect the punishment with the crime, and I’m not sure how successful a citronella collar would be if a handler were activating it. For something like that to “work” it has to be instantaneous, which it wouldn’t be if the handler were setting it off.

    But that wasn’t really the point of the original question or answer. I vote for not letting the dog get it wrong in the first place and reinforcing only correct performance. I see a lot of agility training that doesn’t follow that principle and have to think it takes those poor dogs a lot longer to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing.

    My other observation is about reinforcing behavior. With “trainable” dogs (Duddley Do-Rights), this is easy – yes is yes and no is no. With some of my dogs, yes is boring, no is a win for them, human hysteria is a bigger win and laughter is the unltimate reinforcer. So in class, with these dogs, everyone rolls on the floor over “mistakes” and in no time, they aren’t mistakes any more, their reinforced repeating behavior. One of my boys learned to make eye contact with the instructor, then leap into her arms off the dog walk just for the fun of seeing her hysterical efforts to catch him. I have a horse tha operates on these same principles too. Real pranksters.

    So not reacting except to repeat it correctly asap seems to work better with these guys than any kind of response.

    • I wouldn’t use citronella on biting another dog though, Ellen. I’d be more inclined to shout and call off. (Also, Nova is the dog you’re describing in the third paragraph. oh goodness. Yes.)

      Laura, DEFINITELY! I have one of each, lol. Quick is soft as warm butter, Nova is hard as a rock! I definitely correct them differently.

  5. I believe the amount of correction (or lack thereof) should be based on the dog. If the dog is “soft”, then too much correction could shut the dog down, causing them to stress because they got it wrong. However, on the other hand, if the dog is not soft, then a stronger correction would be warranted. At class last night, a friend’s JRT left her owner’s command of “wait” on the contact,and went sniffing and exploring, totally indifferent to her owner’s call of “come”. The friend finally got her dog under control, and placed the dog back in her crate. The dog was not allowed to play if she didn’t listen to her owner/handle. On the dog’s next turn, she listened to her ower’s commands.

  6. “A puff of vapor from a remote citronella collar will stop him in his tracks.”

    I never know why anyone would suggest this, it a terrible correction because the smell sticks to the dog(and lingers). A good correction is one that is just enough to get the dogs attention to re-focus(each dog is different) and then it is gone as fast as it came.Spraying a dog with citronella will just leave you with a stinky confused dog.
    In my mind you just redirect him physically guiding him and them make a big fuss when he gets it. Don’t let him make the mistake in the first place.

    • I completely agree with your sentiments- and in fact I believe the writer of the entry does as well, since she stipulates that it’s a ‘heinous’ crime that warrants that. I can’t think of any crime I would use citronella on. You’re right- set your dog up to succeed! That’s key in any form of training. Thank you for the comment!

  7. where i train, there are no corrections. it’s all positive. if a dog does something wrong, it’s ‘oh, good try’ and it’s done again. when it’s done right, there is immediately a treat and lots of verbal reinforcement, pets, that sort of thing. it’s all about the dogs having fun and learning to like agility and the obstacles. and let me tell you, the dogs love it and learn quickly.

  8. This was a great post. I hear a lot about positive training, but this doesn’t mean you be positive about the negatives. I like how this article introduces “neutrality”. That is, sometimes simply being non-reactive and withdrawing your normal praise and excitement can communicate unacceptable behavior, while at the same time requiring a re-do. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoy this blog. It’s so practical and every-day.