Correcting Mistakes

by Jane Gill

You probably looked at the title and thought I meant the dog's mistakes, didn't you? AHA! I'm talking about MY mistakes, YOUR mistakes, and PEOPLE mistakes. Even experienced trainers make them, and I have never talked to an obedience person who didn't at some point lament about training mistakes.

As a novice trainer I have certainly made more than my share, especially with poor Conrad. But if to err is human, to forgive is canine. If we are able to recognize we have goofed, the damage can be repaired.

Some of the steps that have helped me along the way:

1. Recognizing that I've blown it: I begin suspecting this when I've been working and working on a particular exercise, and either there's no progress or backward progress. (Example: on Conrad's figure 8's, he began backing up when I said "heel" and stepped forward. Tough to get anywhere that way!)

2. Testing for understanding: Sometimes things are going poorly because the dog has developed a bad attitude about the exercise (as shown above). Sometimes, though, the poor dog just doesn't understand what we want! It also seems to me that at times Conrad will decide that my correction is part of the exercise! (Ex: With Conrad directly in front of me, I would say "Heel". Then I would correct him. Then he would shamble around behind me, return to heel position, and sit. We did this over and over and over.)

When I'm in doubt, I test for understanding using no leash or corrections, but using an incredibly tasty treat as the motivator (Conrad will do anything for sweet bologna). If Conrad just sits and looks imploring, or does a series of other behaviors that he knows well, I'm dealing with lack of understanding. If he does it, even sloppily, it's more likely an attitude problem.

3. Downing tools: Temporarily, I don't work the problem exercise. I need to figure out another approach. I review in my mind how I have trained. Have I corrected too much? Not enough? Have I broken the exercise down into small bits or have I rushed ahead too fast? Have I used enough positive motivation, vocal encouragement, and body language? I re-read training manuals, talk to my obedience instructor, grill doggie friends, and generally make a pest of myself to all and sundry. I must remember, though, to factor all advice with what I know of my dog's temperament. Perfectly good ideas for other dogs might be disastrous with mine.

Particularly in the case of a bad attitude, I don't work that exercise at all for at least two weeks (and probably longer) in an effort to extinguish Conrad's bad association with it.

4. Starting over: I start from scratch, change how I am teaching the exercise, and consider changing the command word, particularly in the case of a bad attitude. The AKC doesn't care what words you use. You could use "Dibble" instead of heel for all they care.

How does all of this work in practice? In the case of Conrad's figure 8 phobia, I realized that, like many beginners, I had dragged him through that exercise, constantly correcting on the turns, before he had an understanding of how to remain in heel position when going in a circle. Not being a stupid boy, he had decided that whenever he saw me set up for that pattern, he just wasn't going to play. We didn't work that pattern for about a month. Instead, on regular heeling patterns, I would do big lazy circles to the right and to the left. Sometimes we would go around trees or signs. No big corrections were used, just vocal encouragement and a speed-up on my part when he would lag. Then we tried lining up for a figure 8. For the first few days, I would take two or three straight steps through the middle, then run forward like a maniac, whooping and hollering and releasing him. Gradually, the two steps became three or four steps, starting to make the turn. Then five or six steps. Then all the way around to the left. After a few months we were doing a figure 8!

On the finish, Conrad just didn't understand what I meant. I am sure that "Heel" to him meant walking at my left side, and that it could also mean "returning to heel" was just not a concept he could handle. Tougher corrections didn't motivate him, or help him to understand. In this case, I switched the word that I was using to "Swing." (This was chosen because I can say it in a very happy, enthusiastic way). Instead of just standing there like a lump, and relying solely on a leash correction, I incorporated lots of body language (running backward a few steps, and then running forward while bringing him behind me) into the equation. Gradually the backward dash became shorter, and the forward dash was eliminated. Then the dash became only the backward motion of the right leg, which would then return to center. Today, Conrad does a beautiful finish!

I guess the real nub of the story is this: if you have been struggling and struggling with one particular obedience behavior, don't give up, don't decide that the dog is stupid, and don't beat yourself up if you realize that you've goofed. The joy of training is in the process. Successfully getting inside your dog's head, analyzing a problem, and working it through, is truly one of the most rewarding parts of that process!

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