GUN­DOG TRAIN­ING: Cor­rec­tion vs re­ward – Howard gives his view on this thorny topic

Should you cor­rect your gun­dog, or should you only use pos­i­tive, re­ward-based train­ing? It’s a thorny sub­ject. Howard gives his view

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - with Howard Kirby Howard Kirby runs Lains Shoot­ing School and Mul­len­scote Gundogs in Hamp­shire

My pur­pose in this ar­ti­cle is to get us all think­ing about how we train our dogs: the tech­niques, plan­ning and, in par­tic­u­lar, how, where and if we should be us­ing any form of cor­rec­tion dur­ing the dog’s ed­u­ca­tion.

As time, sci­ence and our gen­eral un­der­stand­ing of the art of teach­ing all crea­tures, both hu­mans and an­i­mals alike, im­proves, there is no doubt in my mind that best re­sults are achieved in a pos­i­tive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment. That’s hardly state­ment of the year, as even the ‘old school’ among us recog­nise the need for re­ward and praise, but is it pos­si­ble for us to pro­duce a dog that is able to work to the ex­tremely high stan­dards re­quired of it in the shoot­ing field with­out any cor­rec­tions at all? Per­son­ally, I have yet to wit­ness this be­ing achieved!

Al­ready I feel you reach­ing for your key­boards in an ef­fort to ‘put me straight’ (for your in­for­ma­tion my mum gave up when I was a young­ster and, be­lieve me, she’s good). As you read this ar­ti­cle, please stay as open-minded as pos­si­ble as my ob­jec­tive is not to preach but for us to think, ex­plore and, if noth­ing else, eval­u­ate how we each ap­proach our dog train­ing.

There are end­less on­line fo­rums where there is huge dis­cus­sion and un­for­tu­nately some re­ally un­pleas­ant ex­changes of ideas as to what con­sti­tutes a neg­a­tive cor­rec­tion, rang­ing from the word ‘no’ to phys­i­cal cor­rec­tion. And thank good­ness, for as long as we ques­tion and dis­cuss how we do things, the more chance we get to de­velop and im­prove. I just strug­gle with the nasty side of some of these so-called dis­cus­sions. One thing I did learn from my mum was: “If you’ve got noth­ing nice or kind to say it’s prob­a­bly best that you keep it to your­self.”

Re­ward vs rep­ri­mand

Let’s get into the prac­ti­cal side of things and start with a list of some of the ways to re­ward your dog. These can in­clude: ver­bal praise, e.g. ‘good’; a smile, which would gen­er­ally be ac­com­pa­nied by soft body lan­guage; a food re­ward; and a dummy/ toy/bird/re­trieve/hunt­ing ses­sion.

On the dis­ap­prov­ing or cor­rec­tional side of train­ing, many of the recog­nised tech­niques are quite sim­ply the op­po­site to the re­wards, i.e. ver­bal chas­tise­ment, e.g. ‘no’; a cross face, which would gen­er­ally be de­liv­ered with dom­i­nant body lan­guage; the with­hold­ing of a food re­ward or a dummy/toy/bird/re­trieve or hunt­ing ses­sion; or maybe a phys­i­cal tap or poke.

The above lists are very ba­sic. There are other tech­niques and many other sub­tleties that we can use and em­ploy. I have cho­sen these as they are the time-hon­oured tech­niques and most read­ily avail­able and recog­nised. Es­sen­tially, if you are to com­mu­ni­cate with your dog, tim­ing is es­sen­tial; you must ask your­self, what is the dog do­ing or think­ing right now? If I re­ward him while he is do­ing this then he is more likely to re­peat this be­hav­iour. If there is no re­ward or some­thing un­pleas­ant hap­pens then he is less likely to re­peat the be­hav­iour.

Withold­ing re­wards

So, straight away I have listed two very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to cor­rect­ing an un­wanted be­hav­iour, the first be­ing to with­hold the re­ward. A great ex­am­ple of this is when we are tar­get train­ing

‘If you are to com­mu­ni­cate with your dog, tim­ing is es­sen­tial; you must ask your­self, what is the dog do­ing or think­ing right now?’

us­ing Mul­len­scote’s hoop sys­tem. The dog is taught that if he sits qui­etly in the hoop he re­ceives a food treat; we teach han­dlers to use the word ‘good’ fol­lowed by the food re­ward. The ‘re­ward marker’ (the word ‘good’) is given as the dog sits with all four paws inside the hoop. If, for ex­am­ple, one or more of his paws are not inside the hoop, or he has not con­formed to sit­ting on his bot­tom while fo­cus­ing on our face, we sim­ply with­hold the re­ward un­til this is achieved. The tim­ing of the next bit (the re­ward) is es­sen­tial; by with­hold­ing the re­ward the dog has to fig­ure out what he needs to do to get the re­ward. He is now try­ing to work out how to achieve this. The amount of qual­ity train­ing the dog has had will de­ter­mine how dif­fi­cult this prob­lem is for him. As soon as he gets it right, we use the marker word ‘good’ fol­lowed by the food re­ward. The dog will quickly and ac­cu­rately work out what is re­quired.

‘Neg­a­tive’ cor­rec­tions

So that’s one method of cor­rect­ing/train­ing: the dog has to of­fer us the be­hav­iour that we’re look­ing for. Let’s as­sume ex­actly the same train­ing en­vi­ron­ment of hoop, dog and train­ing ob­jec­tive. And, as an al­ter­na­tive for com­par­i­son, once again the dog has left a paw out or is not sit­ting and fo­cus­ing on us. This time he is at­tached to a lead; we can use the lead to ‘check’ him and firmly in­sist that he sets him­self up prop­erly. The mo­ment he is in the cor­rect po­si­tion we say ‘good’ and you might choose to re­in­force the ‘good’ with food. This method ob­vi­ously re­lies on some­thing rel­a­tively un­pleas­ant hap­pen­ing un­til the dog gives you what you want, and might be la­belled as a neg­a­tive cor­rec­tion.

I hope these two very dif­fer­ent styles of teach­ing clearly de­scribe the dif­fer­ences in tech­nique. The first re­lies on the dog fig­ur­ing out what he needs to do and then of­fer­ing the be­hav­iour, ef­fec­tively cor­rect­ing him­self. The sec­ond re­quires the han­dler to demon­strate to the dog what is re­quired, us­ing the lead to bring the dog back into po­si­tion. So is there a pre­ferred method? Is one bet­ter than the other?

Dur­ing ini­tial train­ing I pre­fer to use the first tech­nique be­cause the dog has to use his brain and fig­ure out for him­self just how to get the re­ward. I be­lieve that this en­sures the dog has a clear un­der­stand­ing of what he, as a preda­tor, has to do to get prey (food) in his mouth. With the sec­ond method, it could be ar­gued that he’s of­fer­ing the be­hav­iour to avoid cor­rec­tion.

‘We can use the lead to ‘check’ him and firmly in­sist he sets him­self up prop­erly. The mo­ment he is in the cor­rect po­si­tion we can then re­ward him’

Com­bi­na­tion method

Okay, so if we de­cide to go with the first tech­nique, we need to cover a sce­nario when ei­ther the dis­trac­tion away from the hoop looks more re­ward­ing than the food re­ward you are of­fer­ing him, or he sim­ply gets fed up and doesn’t want to carry on. What do we do now? This is where I blend to­gether tech­nique one and two. Firstly, we need to en­sure that the dog fully un­der­stands what he has to do. Then, we ef­fec­tively say to the dog: ‘Hey you! That “come, sit, watch me, stay” thing that we were do­ing, it’s the law, you know; when I say, “Sit” you have to do it.’ Us­ing your body lan­guage, pos­si­bly a tap or a poke, or the use of the lead, en­sure that he nei­ther puts his paws out­side of the hoop or at­tempts to leave it. If we are ac­cu­rate, clear and con­sis­tent then the dog will have un­der­stood what the hoop is all about and we’ll be ready to move for­ward with train­ing.

Are we clear?

When liv­ing and work­ing with a dog, what we all wish to achieve is a well-trained, obe­di­ent, and happy ca­nine com­pan­ion. I be­lieve that to achieve this we need to es­tab­lish clear rules and bound­aries. Dur­ing train­ing, we must do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to en­cour­age the dog to of­fer and give the be­hav­iours we need from him to en­sure he is en­joy­able and safe to be around.

In my opin­ion, if we are to train a dog us­ing cor­rec­tional tech­niques then these need to be thor­oughly con­sid­ered be­fore use to en­sure that any cor­rec­tions given are ‘ef­fec­tive cor­rec­tions’, mean­ing the dog thor­oughly un­der­stands what it is you don’t like and sub­se­quently of­fers the be­hav­iour you re­quire. There­fore, he can choose to avoid cor­rec­tion. Pro­vided there is a clear un­der­stand­ing then the dog is able to func­tion happy in the knowl­edge that as long as he keeps to the rules then he has no need to be un­sure or wary of you.

In con­clu­sion, be­ing told what you are and are not al­lowed to do when liv­ing as part of a hu­man or ca­nine group is part of day-to-day life and es­sen­tial for suc­cess­ful co­ex­is­tence. Pro­vided some­one clearly ex­plains to you what is ex­pected then we and our dogs can hap­pily choose to con­form. Get­ting this right all of the time is dif­fi­cult, but we owe it to ev­ery­one – dogs and hu­mans – that we live with to en­sure they feel con­fi­dent, happy and safe around us. This then al­lows ev­ery­one to per­form to the best of their abil­ity.

Keeeeeep train­ing, have fun and be nice to each other!

Body lan­guage can com­mu­ni­cate dis­plea­sure with an un­wanted be­hav­iour

Howard Kirby, Chud­leys Brand Am­bas­sador

In some cases, you need to in­ter­vene with a cor­rec­tion to let the dog know the be­hav­iour is un­wanted

... re­ward with food, praise or a re­trieve

When the dog of­fers up a good be­hav­iour...

Some­times the use of a lead is all the cor­rec­tion that is re­quired

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