Saturday, July 16, 2011

I was reading up on a few people's impressions of a recent Denise Fenzi seminar, and one thing has struck me. From what I gather from various posts, one of her take-home messages is:

silence = good

What I gather she means is that if you have a dog with whom you wish to compete in obedience you want to not have to rely on a string of reinforcement to keep the dog confident and motivated. I know I'm very prone to useless chatter when I'm pleased with my dog's performance. I've also been educated to believe that a correct behaviour should be marked and an incorrect one ignored - the dog should be able to figure out their response was incorrect from the lack of reinforcement.

The way I've interpreted what I've read is that silence, simply enough, means that the dog is doing well, and to continue. If a dog should make a mistake, it is then that a timely correction is offered.

Now, this makes sense to me on some level, but on another level it kind of throws a wrench into the whole positive reinforcement mantra that I hear repeated time and time again by my favourite trainers. It also makes me stop to ponder that:

if silence = good does voice = bad

With everything in life, I'm sure it's not such a black and white issue. However I'm curious where in the grey zone Denise Fenzi and other successful R+ish obedience competitors lay.

I think it's pertinent to be mindful of the discipline you're currently competing in. I feel strongly that agility should always be a positive experience where the dog is never wrong. I also feel strongly that a good family pet can be more than adequately trained through positive* means. Though when it comes to top tier competitive obedience I wonder when and where corrections might be necessary.** 

As always I suspect the answer is:

 it depends

I'm squeamish to think that any degree of negativity should be intentionally injected into a dog and handler's relationship.I know that even now I'm still paying for some foolish knee-jerk reactions I had when Cohen was being a no-good puppy. I don't feel comfortable thinking it justified to place undue stress on a dog in a situation that is innately stressful (stress is intrinsic to the learning process). But on the flip side, I do correct a forge during LLW with a happy-sounding "whoops" to great effect.

As of now I'm positively delighted at Cohen's behaviour. She and I are really meshing into a cohesive team, and I don't particularly plan on changing my approach. However, these types of refreshing variations in approach always make for some interesting food for thought.

* Positive means, in this context, refers to positive reinforcement.
** Necessary corrections might be things like a non-reward marker or a playful tap - not anything unnecessarily stressful or harsh.


  1. Denise does a lot of cheerleading and encouragement when the dog is out of position or wrong. So, she uses her voice to say, c'mon, you can do it! When the dog is right, she is silent, and then she throws a big verbal party. I didn't see a single time over the weekend where her voice became harsh or mean. It really didn't even become flat or neutral.

    I know it sounds really, really weird- but I was impressed when I watched her, and I've started doing it with my dog with great results.

  2. I like that you mention it to be cheer-leading rather than reprimanding. I think that corrections are natural, but I'm not convinced that they're necessary.

    I'm curious where the line is between "necessary" and "not". I do believe that it's natural for people to offer corrects. I also believe it's necessary to correct to some degree if you have a dog competing for an OTCH. I also believe that it is human nature to abuse corrections... and that's where I get uncomfortable.

    At what point is R+/P- not enough?

    I think Finzi sounds absolutely marvelous, so I don't intend for this to sound like a critique. It serves to remind me that I need to familiarize myself more with the world of competitive obedience.