Corrections are the Key
By Patrick Shannahan

As published in American Border Collie Magazine...

I think one of the most difficult concepts for many people to grasp, is that of what is a proper correction for a dog.  Recently, I was giving a lesson to an experienced dog person, whose dog was continuing to make the same mistake.  I told him, that when the dog made the mistake, he needed to quickly give it a correction.  He said how?  Well, since he was experienced, I assumed he knew how.  But he continued to ask what type of correction he needed to give.  Verbal? Running toward the dog? Ahh? Growl?  At that point I told him it isn’t important exactly what the correction is, but what is important is that the dog knew that he was wrong and was displeasing you.

Most of the time, I don’t really many of think of what a correction is.  We watch others, and see them growl, grunt and yell at their dogs and mimic that behavior.  When we are starting, we are told to correct the dog when he is wrong, but at that point, many of us don’t even know if the dog is wrong or not.

A correction is a segment of training that teaches the dog that is has made the wrong choice.  It is very simple, they have made a choice and it is wrong, and we need them to choose a different alternative.  It too may be wrong, but by eliminating all the choices but the correct one, the dog will understand your communication.

Basically, I find there are two types of mistakes that need corrections. One I will call an “innocent” mistake, and the other a “deliberate” choice. Both need corrections, but the corrections will vary with the type and the severity since they come from different intentions.

In an “innocent” mistake or problem, is where the dog is making the mistake out of ignorance or lack of knowledge.  It is a mistake because the dog hasn’t learned the concept, or command yet.  When our dogs start out being trained, many of the mistakes that need to be corrected are innocent. They don’t do the right choice, because they don’t know what the right choice is.  The first few times you work a dog, most of the mistakes are innocent.   When you teach flanking commands or a down for the very first time, those area couple of examples of this type of mistake.

Sometimes I see inexperienced trainers not understand the innocent mistake concept.  They come down really hard on a dog that basically doesn’t know any better. When you give a hard correction for an innocent mistake, it takes away trust that a dog has for you.  Many times I see people throwing out commands way over a dog’s skill, out of frustration of the current situation.  They may then improperly correct a dog, being frustrated, and not recognizing that the dog does not have those skills developed yet.

It is our job as trainers to recognize what is an innocent mistake and what is a deliberate choice.

A deliberate choice is one where the dog knows the command or concept yet chooses to do something else.  Not lying down when told, or not coming on a recall are a couple of examples of a deliberate choices.  These types of faults need to be dealt with differently as they are deliberate in nature, and they choose to go against our will.

 When I think about my own dogs, I know that each of them needs to be corrected in a different way.  Some dogs are harder than others.  Soft dogs need correcting as well, but usually in a more gentle way.  But the important aspect is that the dog, when corrected, realized he made a mistake or the wrong choice.

A dog will tell you with his body language when he comprehends that he has made an error.  Some dogs’ turn away slightly, others just move their head down to let you know that they understand that they have made the wrong choice.  Once again, we as trainers are to look for these subtle cues and respect that the dog understands he needs to make a different choice.  If you continue to correct a dog that has shown you that he understands that he has made an error, you risk the chance that the dog will loose respect for you.

The next time that you go out training your dog, think about the communication that you are giving the dog with corrections. Are you corrections appropriate for the error?  Are they given timely so the dog understands exactly what the mistake is?   Are they given to teach the dog or are they given just out of frustration of the situation?  As much as we would like to not have to correct dogs, it is a daily part of training.  Understanding a correction for both you and the dog is the first step in making corrections work for you.