Using "Environmental Corrections" and Teaching a Dog Not to Run Around A Jump

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

Introducing "Environmental" corrections

Up until now, the remote training techniques covered in this column have involved using the remote trainer to reinforce known commands. There is another, also extremely effective, way to use a remote trainer. It can also be used to give corrections that are not associated with a command, but rather with a particular situation or action by the dog. No command or verbal cue is given by the trainer when making an "environmental correction."

The dog's first reaction to the correction is to think that a particular place in the environment is uncomfortable. Through repetition, and the structured experiences that you design, he generalizes to a particular action of his own. Then he avoids taking that action.

The right level of intensity

In most training situations, environmental corrections should be very mild--even to the point where the trainer's typical reaction might be to think, "the collar isn't working," because he doesn't see any physical reaction from the dog. Nevertheless, if he watches the dog through a few repetitions, he'll see the dog's behavior change, reflecting the dog's own decision to avoid the mild displeasure.

Mild corrections are preferred because, for the dog to make the desired connection, he needs to choose to take the undesirable action more than once. This repetition allows him to spot the pattern. If the dog's first experience with the correction "blows him away," he won't want to be anywhere around the area where he felt stimulation. The more mentally sensitive the individual dog is, the more important it is that an environmental correction not be too high at first.

An appropriate use of high level stimulation for an environmental correction is "snake breaking." Wait until the dog sees the snake and puts its head down to investigate.

Immediately use your collar at a high level.

Although low-level corrections are generally desirable, there are situations where a very strong environmental correction is the correct training approach. In certain life-threatening situations, you want the dog to have a very strong negative association.

An example of the appropriate use of high level stimulation for an environmental correction is "snake breaking." Snake breaking is a training procedure that teaches dogs that are worked in the field to leave poisonous snakes alone.

Environmental corrections for solving problem behaviors

Environmental corrections can be used very effectively to eliminate various "problem behaviors" in companion dogs. These behaviors include things like jumping up on patio doors, stealing from kitchen counters, and so on.

A correction for a problem behavior should be timed to coincide with the dog's physical contact of the forbidden object. The correction should be low at first. After a few repetitions, stimulation may be increased if necessary to convince the dog.

The dog should not think that a person had anything to do with the unpleasant experience. The trainer should not reprimand the dog or make eye contact with him. The transmitter should be out of sight, and far enough from the dog that he can't hear the button when it's pressed. Any people present in the area should completely ignore the dog.

Teaching a dog not to run around the high jump

Now that we've explained the "environmental correction," we'll put it into practice for the obedience dog. We'll start with a situation that frequently comes up in obedience, teaching a dog not to run around the jump in the retrieve over the high jump.

Note that the following instructions assume that your dog already has some familiarity with jumping. If he doesn't, you should familiarize him with the idea of going over the low jump before you begin the environmental correction procedure.

To the dog, a jump is an obstacle--it's easier to go around than over. If you use mild stimulation to make the route around the jump slightly uncomfortable, then show the dog that the comfortable route is over the jump, he will decide on his own that it's preferable to go over the jump rather than around it.

The sequence of the experiences gives the dog the chance to compare results and make his own decision. He won't feel the stress and confusion that comes from thinking he did something "wrong" when he ran around and his trainer stopped him, reprimanded him, acted disappointed, etc.

After the dog has experienced the "correction and comparison" sequence in several different training areas, he'll see the jumping situation as a "picture" that has a certain meaning. He will develop the habit of not trying to run around jumps.

Start with a low jump so you can repeat from up close

Start with the jump low so that the dog can easily go over it from up close. Stand at the normal distance from the jump and toss your dumbbell. Send the dog with the command you use for the retrieve over the jump. (We use our jump command, and reserve our retrieve command for the retrieve on the flat.)

Correct at the "apex" of the dog's route around the jump

If the dog runs around the jump, apply brief low-level electrical stimulation just as the dog passes by the edge of the jump. This spot is the "apex" of his route around the jump, as shown in the illustration. Don't say anything to the dog--just let him continue to finish the retrieve. Act just as happy with him as if he'd done things correctly.

"Momentary" stimulation is ideal for the "apex" correction, although a brief burst of "continuous" will work. Regardless of which kind of stimulation you use, remember to hold the button down for at least 1/2 a second. A very quick "tap" of the button may not cause the collar to activate at all.

An immediate positive comparison is the "secret ingredient" for success

Now that you've made a correction, you must simplify the dog's task. He must be successful on the next repetition. This positive comparison, coming right after a failure that had consequences for the dog, is the essential "secret ingredient" that causes environmental corrections to shape the dog's behavior in the way you desire.

You don't want an inexperienced dog to be "wrong" several times in a row, or he could make an association you don't want. The dog needs the comparison of doing the task right, without correction, for the mild environmental correction to have meaning. This comparison training will lead to his identifying a "picture."

Remember this rule. After every wrong decision by the dog, which resulted in your application of low-level stimulation, immediately simplify the task to ensure that the dog does it correctly with the next repetition.

So if the dog runs around the jump, on the next repetition start very close so that the dog really has no choice and will automatically go over it. Also, if the dog has run around on the way out to retrieve, you can help him with his "comparison" if you step closer to the jump as he returns and encourage him to return over it.

The three-step cycle

  1. Correct. Any time the dog runs around the jump either going out or returning, apply stimulation at the apex of his path around the jump.
  2. Show. Now give him the positive comparison by arranging things so that he'll go over the jump.
  3. Repeat the Challenge. Then, after the positive comparison, immediately back up your starting point and send the dog from the original distance again. Let him make up his own mind by giving him the chance to go around again.

Continue this three-step sequence. After a very few cycles, you'll see the dog start to run around, then suddenly change his mind and go over the jump. This shows you he's "made the connection" at that particular location.

After you repeat the procedure in a few different locations, your dog will conclude on his own that the path over a jump is the one he wants to use, and he'll maintain a great attitude because he won't associate you with the correction.

Note that some dogs with a high prey drive won't feel mild stimulation at all on their way to make a retrieve. If you have followed the three-step cycle several times without the dog's behavior changing, then you should gradually increase the intensity of the correction until you find the level that your dog perceives as unpleasant and causes him to modify his behavior.

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