Do Your Magic Words Work?
By Claudia Frank - Drawing by Amy Aitken

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Stockdog training is not magic! We can’t raise a magic wand or use magic words that cause our dog to perform as we wish both in action and in mental attitude. We all know, or should know, that there is a direct correlation between the amount of correct training and actual work we do with our dog and the behavior our dogs assume.

It isn’t unusual to see a handler standing at the post while their dog is on the trial field making error after error. The handler gives commands, whistles, gives louder commands, gyrates and makes more even louder corrections and commands. This handler is reacting emotionally. This often elicits a negative emotional response from the dog. Instead of becoming calmer and more thoughtful, the dog reacts in a mirror fashion, that is, mirroring the emotionality exhibited by the handler – becoming more agitated rather than calmer. A dog who becomes emotional loses concentration for the task at hand. This elicits the opposite response from the dog than the handler wants. The dog continues as it did before any of these attempts at control were executed by the handler. There is no doubt that this handler lacks any magic.

In the second case, the handler stands at the post and at any point during the run that the handler notes that the dog begins getting excited, disobeying and/or starts to pick up speed the handler gives a correction in a low-pitched calm or non-emotional tone of voice. A calm non-emotional correction allows the dog to mirror that calmness – and respond in like fashion. A calm dog can concentrate and respond appropriately. This handler has the magic and the dog immediately lowers its head, puts back its ears, becomes more thoughtful and is then fully responsive to the handler.

What caused the difference between the two dogs’ reactions to their handlers? Was it magic? No, but it would look that way. It’s not the words themselves that are important, it is HOW we deliver them that is.

The difference comes from the handler’s reactions during training to errors in the dog’s behavior. If the handler gets “mad” and frustrated with their dog and corrects the dog in a highly emotional state, and then the correction doesn’t work the handler often wonders why. Any learning is negated with all these emotions running so high. Corrections should be delivered in an objective manner. If the dog’s incorrect behavior is stopped immediately and it is put on the correct path the dog will develop an immediate response to the first word of correction regardless of the handler’s location. That is the opposite of the handler that chooses to use their voice to correct over and over but never impress upon the dog the importance of changing its behavior and actions to what is desired.

One way to establish your magic (quick correct response to verbal corrections) when you know your dog understands the command, is to work your dog using the following steps …

1) Give the command in a normal tone of voice;

2) if the dog fails to respond as you have trained then stop it immediately with something like an “ugh ugh” or “no” at a normal tone for a dog just learning or with a firm edged scolding to a dog who should have known better. Get into position to change the dog’s behavior. The time between your initial verbal correction and your arriving at the next position is all part of the “correction”.

3) Repeat the command calmly and immediately enforce it physically. The “enforcement” will be gentle and instructional for a dog just learning. Do not repeat the command again. This may be a wave of the stockstick or new postion of your body. Stronger enforcement for the better trained dog could be moving assertively in the dog’s direction or striking the ground with the stockstick. Often the ability to continue to work stock is a reward for doing the correct behavior for the dog but using a word of praise never hurts to define the correct behavior too.

4) Give thought to what went wrong and how you corrected the dog. Then set up the steps again if possible. Sometimes it is not possible but keep it in the back of your mind and try to set the situation up again at a later training session.

Another way to ensure your reinforcing the correct response to the FIRST command in training is to think in terms of never repeating a command, which has not been obeyed, without changing something to ensure that the command will be honored respectfully. This change could be your location, the position of your arms , your body position, etc.

When a struggling handler observes a trainer who seems to have the magic to their words, he/she often picks up on the change in behavior that appears to be the direct result of the verbal scolding, but perhaps fails to understand that initially the command/correction was paired with a physical action. The physical action being the more significant of the two.

Page Updated 07/22/2011

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