Corrections or No Corrections?

by Beth Scorzelli

If you have been around dog training at all, I am sure you have an opinion about using corrections in training. This is just what I have learned from personal experience and my opinion about using corrections when training obedience.

When I was taking my first obedience class in 1994 with my mixed breed, “positive” training was just coming around. My mixed breed, Scout, and I did obedience the “old” way for the most part. No treats, just corrections and it worked. Of course he was a very happy and forgiving dog. I am now on my third Shih Tzu that I am training in obedience and do not believe you can train a Shih Tzu that way. When I got my first obedience Shih Tzu, Sawyer, positive reinforcement was really coming around. Which was a good thing since a Shih Tzu is very different than Scout, a Golden mix. She would do anything for a treat and I used lots of them. She was very reliable as long as I had treats. I still used some voice and physical corrections, but very sparingly. Then along came Brook and if you verbally corrected her, she would melt. She is my dog that would rather do nothing than be wrong. I used lots of treats with her too. I did find that while using only positive motivators, i.e. treats, my dogs’ performance in the ring did suffer. I then read something that made perfect sense to me. If you do an effective correction, the dog is doing what you want, so a correction should immediately be followed by praise. Sounds very simple. I started using this theory on Brook with only physical corrections, mainly for attention while heeling. If she looked away I would reach down and give her a small collar pop and then immediately praise her when she was back in position. I started this after she got her first Open leg. Her first score for her CDX was a 170. Her last was a 192. Still I did not have the consistency with Sawyer or Brook that you want in the obedience ring.

Over the years I have tried many different things and listened and watched many different people. I mentally throw out a lot since lots of things that work for other breeds do not work when you are training very smart dogs like Shih Tzu. They just do not take a lot of repetition or harsh corrections. Also, even among Shih Tzu, each dog is different and will take different things. Sawyer you could correct any way you wanted, verbally or physically, and if she thought it was fair she was fine with it. Brook I could only correct physically. When I was giving a physical correction I would say something in a very upbeat voice like “oops you did that wrong, let’s try again”. I found she accepted that much better than a negative tone. She also taught me not to get emotional when giving a correction. I think that is the biggest problem people have (including me) with corrections; we put too much emotion in it instead of just delivering the information. Which is simply, that was not what I wanted. I think dogs really need to know when they are right and when they are wrong. I think they are happier and more confident when they know that.

I am now on my fifth dog, the third Shih Tzu that I am training in obedience. There was a Bearded Collie in between Icy and Brook. I have taken a new approach with her. With Sawyer and Brook I constantly fought keeping them “up” in the ring. Keeping a good attitude became my constant battle with them. Icy has the benefit of not having to go through all the mistakes I made with my first few dogs. With Icy I have kept her training positive and fun making games of everything, but also use corrections. However, my corrections for her, especially in the learning stages, are things like “uh-oh” or “oops”. Just as I “mark” a correct behavior with “good” or “yes”; I mark an incorrect behavior with “uh-oh”. I started this with my Bearded Collie and it seemed to make him work harder, so I figured I would try it with Icy. She has learned that as soon as I say “uh-oh” that she did something wrong and immediately tries again. She does get traditional mild collar corrections immediately followed by praise and she is learning a forced retrieve with the dumbbell as all my other dogs have, and so far, she has kept her upbeat, confident attitude. She has earned her Rally Novice and Advanced titles with scores in the 90’s. She has also earned her CD. Her performances in regular obedience are still a little rough, but she is always up and happy in the ring and judges and spectators love to watch her. We are in the process of “shrinking the box” on what is acceptable with mild corrections and lots of praise. So far this method of mild corrections, marking correct and incorrect behavior, and lots of praise is working for us. If you have a personal experience or opinion about using corrections in obedience/rally training, I would be happy to hear from you. | Sawyer422@aol.com.

Reprinted from the Fourth Quarter 2008 Shih Tzu Bulletin.