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Force or Correction?

Force or Correction?
Reconditioning the dog’s mind

written by Butch Goodwin

Northern Flight Retrievers  

I introduced you to my friend and fellow retriever trainer, Pete Eromenok, in the April/May 2010 issue of The Retriever Journal in an article entitled, “Defusing Bird-Possessive Aggression.” While I was talking to Pete about his work – he works with all breeds of dogs displaying various kinds of aggression – he answered a phone call and spent considerable time explaining to one of his clients about the differences between correcting a dog’s responses and reconditioning a dog’s mind to perform correctly. Later, in a conversation with a successful long-time field trialer – who had never given much thought to the differences between force and correction so that the problem being corrected was less likely to show up again in a field trial – Pete suggested this topic would be a good one for a column.

Over the years, I have almost always heard dog. trainers use the words “force” and “correction” interchangeably. From what I overheard from Pete’s conversation, his rather simple explanation of the differences and how reconditioning is accomplished interested me to the point that I sat down with Pete again to have him explain “reconditioning” so that I could pass it along.

“It doesn’t matter if you use the terms ‘force’ and ‘correction’ interchangeably until you try to explain how to recondition a dog back to running tests or trials after the dog has developed behaviors that prevent it from advancing,” Pete said. “For example, we know there are dogs that have not received the benefits of a program rooted in force that do a very reliable job at tests. But there are talented dogs playing the dog games that will not be able to succeed unless a systematic regimen of force has reconditioned them to be reliable performers; eradicating certain behaviors brought on by excitement.

“The official name for a correction is ‘positive punishment.’ It can be the yank and release of the leash, yelling, a swat with a heeling stick, or the introduction of anything the dog views as bad. These things will normally reduce the frequency of the undesired behaviors.

“‘Negative reinforcement’ is the removal of something the dog views as bad. In the retriever world it is called ‘force.’ An example would be the ear pinch to begin the force-fetch process. The pressure on the ear is released when the fetching object is in the dog’s mouth, thus shutting off the pressure. It produces the opposite effect as a correction. Instead of stopping a behavior, which is what a correction does, force increases the frequency of a behavior. This is a very important point to remember.”

I asked Pete to use the example of steadying a breaking or creeping dog to explain what he was telling me – sinceeveryone has or has had a dog that was difficult to steady.

“Breaking or creeping is a common behavior exhibited by excitable, high-drive dogs. The key word here is excitable. The goal is not to stop the dog from breaking, but to recondition the dog to embed a behavior to be sitting in the heel position,” said Pete. “It’s not don’t break the sit, but the mind-set must be changed to I must be next to my handler’s side in order to be released to make the retrieve.

There is a huge difference in the state of mind between the two behaviors. We must make it the dog’s responsibility to be at our side. Remember, force increases a behavior and a correction diminishes it.

“So the question in peoples’ minds might be, ‘Why can’t we just correct for sit or heel if we are trying to eradicate breaking or creeping? After all, we are trying to stop the dog from breaking or creeping when prey objects are presented.’ This is where the problem lies: There are some dogs that this correction simply won’t transfer to tests or trials very well. Once excitability destabilizes a dog, corrections can elevate the dog’s excitement and drive and possibly bring on other unstable behaviors, such as whining. This makes it difficult to make the dog understand his own responsibilities.

“A common complaint is: He sometimes creeps or breaks at trials or tests, but he doesn’t do it in training. Well, because the dog doesn’t receive any corrections at trials or tests, the dog learns quite quickly that corrections cannot be administered at a test, so each time a dog breaks or creeps in a trial or test, this behavior is actually being reinforced. You may be able to stop him from breaking at a test by giving him a verbal correction, but you have not taught him that it is his responsibility to remain at your side until released. In a dog’s mind this is a huge difference.”

To explain what Pete means by the “dog’s responsibility,” let me use an example most trainers are quite familiar with: force-fetch. Most trainers of hunting breeds agree that force-fetch is the basic way to proof behaviors dealing with picking up, carrying, and not chewing on birds or bumpers. The force-fetch process later expands into a more complex set of retrieving drills. Proofing refers to the commands given to a dog that are obeyed in most contexts, and also to the dog responding properly, on its own, in those same contexts, without the handler speaking a word. This is what is meant by the “dog’s responsibility.”

Signals are far more meaningful to a dog than words. Dogs are by nature silent communicators. If an action is a dog’s responsibility, then often there is no need to give a command for that action. An example might be that when a dog is released for a bird, he runs out, fetches the bird, comes back, returns to heel, sits, drops the bird when the handler touches it, and remains sitting until the handler turns to leave the line … all of this without the handler uttering a word. These behaviors have been linked together through the step-by-step training process. The dog actually learns to behave this way when certain cues or actions, conscious or unconscious, are exhibited by the handler. 

  “We have conditioned or trained each of these behaviors in the context in which it’s applied,” Pete said. “There is a simple formula for dog training:Timing plus Motivation plus Consistency equalsTrained Response. The better the timing of the motivation, the injection … of the correct motivation for [a specific] circumstance, and a high standard of consistency will determine the level of a trained response. Low levels of force consistently applied over a period of time will produce a dog that seeks to comply with a specific cue. When under the spell of extreme excitability, the conditioned response now overrides. 

“Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned focus, which is one of the main ingredients of the rehabilitation process. The dog must focus on the
bird being thrown as well as maintaining a peripheral focus on the handler’s movements and cues. After all, if it’s the dog’s responsibility to be next to the handler, the dog learns that he must also keep an eye on the handler. So, how do we take a dog conditioned to breaking at tests and recondition him to seek the heel position and maintain a quiet steady sitting position? It may sound difficult, but it is really quite easy. The problems that often arise are usually because the handler must also recondition himself to respond in a different manner than he has in the past. The dog’s part is simple: All he has to do is respond to what the handler is doing. The handler has to retrain his own motor skills to respond correctly to what the dog is doing.” 

  Pete decided that it might be best to show me while at the same time describing the basics of the steadying process. He starts by teaching a reverse heel on the leash (using a prong collar might help the dog understand moving backward). This begins by taking a small step backward while using the “heel” command. Your objective is to make the dog move straight back without turning his front end or back end, in or out. A rope around the dog’s waist might help to control his back end, if necessary. You can flip a bumper out a few feet to the front, and the dog’s focus on the bumper will likely help to keep him moving straight back. Pete suggests working on this drill until you can move the dog straight back for a considerable distance – say, 10 feet or so.

When the heeling backward is relatively solid, introduce low-level, continuous stimulation. Move backward, as you hold the button down and command, “Heel.” Discontinue the stimulation immediately when the dog gets to the heel position. Do not try to move the entire 10 feet at one time; use your leash to guide him in short increments. As the dog begins to move backward with you, cease the stimulation.

Continue this drill until you can take five or six steps backward and the dog moves straight back with your not having to use the verbal command. You are now starting to teach the dog to seek the heel position even when he is not paying particular attention to you. The goal is to make him pay attention to your silent cues and your movements. He should start seeking the heel position on his own – without verbal commands from you. You should eventually only have to use the low stimulation immediately when the dog does not move with you. Also, it is a good idea to watch for opportunities when he is distracted and not paying attention so you can further reinforce with the low stimulation. Remember: The level of stimulation must be low enough that the dog can think through the process, but not so low that the excitement of a bird can override the “heel” response.

Remember also, up to this point we are teaching this in the yard, so we’re not ready for any serious marks yet. However, a good plan is to have a helper introduce flipped bumpers, guns, duck calls, and maybe even shackled birds into the equation to distract the dog so you can reinforce with low stimulation. Before going to the field, your goal should be to throw a happy bumper and move backward while the bumper is still in the air and without uttering any command. The dog should move backward with you, paying attention to you while he is in drive- mode and excitable.

When the dog is reliably moving with you under all circumstances in the yard, it is time to start over again out in the field. Repeat the entire process in the field, starting with hand-thrown bumpers until he is giving you the response that you expect. When this is solid, you can move on to simple single marks and then multiple marks and eventually multiple marks with a flyer being shot from the line. If the dog creeps up on you anytime during the process, then you must condition yourself, at the same time, to step backward using continuous stimulation and hold the button down until the dog is in place. If at times he is unable to maintain focus during a mark, use a slip cord through the prong collar and snap it backward without talking. 

  “Next, go to your club fun trial or a group training session to imitate a trial and repeat the exact same procedure,” Pete said. “And remember – do not say a word. You may find that you might even occasionally have to leave the line and review the earlier steps if the dog is not keeping his eye on you. 

 “I need to mention again that this and is fairly easy for the dog to learn, but it is important that you [the handler] must also recondition your thinking. It can take quite a while before a handler can successfully get out of his or her rut that has been grooved upon their mind. It will take the handler longer to learn the timing and physical responses than it does the dog! The handler’s responses must become second nature. You must always be ready to respond to the dog’s actions or intents, and if you can find someone who uses this method, it will help to have them critique you through the entire process. This doesn’t mean you will always get the perfect ‘heel’ when training or at a trial, but it is considerably easier to gain control and have the dog understand his responsibilities. Remember, if you speak or give commands, then you just took the responsibility off of the dog. If you are extremely consistent with this, he will respond at a test or trial. There should be little need to speak to him at a test anyway. If you get nervous and start to repeat, ‘Heel, heel, heel,’ old conditioning responses could resurface and your training will likely end up falling apart.”

This is a great method that Pete showed me to use for those dogs that are difficult to steady by old conventional training methods (e.g., the stick-sit or sit-nick methods). Not all dogs do well using the conventional methods. Chomping, whining, and a whole host of other problems can occur from too much pressure.

If you find yourself in a rut and getting the same unreliable results from doing the same old thing, give this method a try. It’s gentle, it’s quiet, and it can be done in a public place because no one but you and your dog will likely ever know what you are doing .•