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Praise Your Pup

Praise your pup when he or she does it right, and correct when he or she does it wrong. This seems like a simple enough concept, but observing amateurs and some pros handle their pupils I am struck by how many of them rarely fail to correct but seldom praise. Before delving more deeply into the importance of appropriate praise there are two addendums to this praise and correction concept to discuss. The first one is that correction is not punishment. You 'never' punish during training sessions. A correction simply involves replacing an undesired command response with the desired one. The second addendum is that corrections cannot be made until the pup has been taught the proper command response, and clearly understands what is expected of it.

Those of you who have been reading this column probably realize that I am a firm proponent of early obedience training and of a failsafe/positive reinforcement approach to that puppy obedience training. I do not allow young pups to fail during training sessions, and I always praise their success. They not only learn the commands, but also, learn to enjoy training and to trust my handling. Contrary to some thinking that early obedience will take the hunt out of a dog, my pups come out of obedience training and into the field with greater confidence and boldness.

Assuming a pup comes to me around seven to eight weeks of age, the first two weeks or so are time for socialization and getting acquainted. Housebreaking may begin, a name taught and the come command begun in a playful manner. Around nine to ten weeks I start short, positive sessions teaching basic commands(see the previous article on obedience training). During these sessions, there will be praise only, no corrections. The reason there will be no corrections is because the pup will not be permitted to fail. This approach will continue throughout puppy obedience training. By the time the pup is through puberty and entering adolescence (around six months) it will have an understanding of basic obedience commands, and be performing them correctly in isolation on a lead or checkcord.

Around this age, it is time to begin transition training to the field and other environments where distance and distraction will both be factors interfering with pup's attention to commands. Now is the time for appropriate correction to enter your training regimen. Introduce mild distractions at first tempting pup to violate a given command, but be in position to correct with use of a checkcord or other appropriate device. Show pup that even though there is a new distraction he or she must still obey. Give the command and introduce the distraction. If pup obeys anyway, praise! If pup violates, repeat the command and reinforce it with the correct physical positioning. Gradually, increase the level of distraction and the complexity of your commands, praising for success and correcting for failure. Both praise and correction should be of an appropriate level for the situation and the individual pup. Too much or too little of either will be a roadblock to success. The clear distinction between praise for one behavior and correction for another will soon lead to a well mannered, calm and confident pup. Well bred, biddable gun dog pups will seek your approval and respond to your praise as an incentive to perform in a manner that pleases you. Their innate temperament will be your guidepost to the levels of praise and correction that are necessary. Softer pups will require more positive reinforcement and a softer touch, while more assertive ones may require more correction and a more forceful touch. Pups out of competitive breeding will probably be more driven to search for themselves and less concerned with pleasing you.

Throughout your dog's life attention should continue to be given to using appropriate levels of correction and praise. Once the dog is trained and responding well to commands do not forget to continue with praise. I think the common mistake at this point is the same one we often make in human interaction. There is an expectation of correct behaviors that often leads to a failure to praise. As an example, if a gun dog fails to turn and quarter on the two whistle blast as taught the handler will correct with checkcord or remote training collar. However, if the dog correctly responds to the quartering command nothing is said or done. A simple 'good boy' or 'that a boy' would go a long way toward reinforcing the dog's willingness to please you. A handler too often expects success and with that expectation comes an unconscious failure to praise, yet the same handler is quick to correct any break in training.

The simple thesis of this article is that a successful owner/ canine relationship depends upon an equal balance of correction and praise. Don't forget the PRAISE!

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