Last week we discussed why dogs make mistakes, and some general guidelines on how to handle mistakes in training. This week I want to get into a little more detail on what exactly you can do to make success more likely.
We listed out a few reasons that dogs make mistakes.
- The dog doesn’t thoroughly understand the behavior
- There are too many distractions or the context has changed
- The dog doesn’t feel well
- The dog is scared or anxious
In all of these situations, continued repetition is not good for your or the dog! This will lead to frustration.
So What Do I Do?
It’s important for us to make our best guess as to why the dog didn’t perform the correct behavior so that we know what to do on the next rep, but your immediate response to the mistake can be the same.
- Throw a reset treat
- Ask for a simple behavior and reward
But then what? Your dog comes back from chasing the reset treat, ready for another cue.
If your dog is happy and confident, and you’re fairly sure the dog knows the cue, go ahead and say it again. If your dog responds, great! Reward! If not, the dog is clearly telling you he can’t do it in this context, so it’s your job to make it easier. Go ahead and throw another reset treat while you think through what to do.
See if you can guess why the dog didn’t perform. Are you in a new environment? Are you in a busy room with lots of other dogs? Are you trying to fade a body movement cue and get the behavior on a verbal? Is your dog excited because you have a guest at your house?
Let’s discuss some examples.
Your puppy sits great in your living room, but at puppy class she stares at you like she doesn’t know what the word means.
This is likely a generalization and distraction problem. We have to teach our dogs that sit means sit in different environments, not just in the living room. Also, the other dogs are likely distracting the pup, compounding the problem.
I would not re-cue the dog in this case. I would get high value treats and move as far away from the other puppies and people as I could. When you hold a treat, most dogs are likely to offer a sit, so I would reward a few offered sits, then away from the distractions I would cue the sit. If she did it, I would reward and praise, then repeat once more before I went a bit closer to the distractions. If she did not do it, I would stop asking her in that session and brainstorm how I could further break down the environment and distractions to help her be successful, while I put some more reward history on the behavior at home.
Your dog misses the down signal during a training session.
The first thing that I’m going to do is help my dog be successful by following the signal with a verbal. I will then reward and reset the dog. While I’m doing this, I’m going to ask myself, does the really dog know this cue, in this situation? If I think the answer is yes, I will try again.
If the dog performs the cue, great! Reward and have a party. If the dog repeats the same mistake, you need to make it easier the next time. Perhaps you can stay closer to the dog. Maybe you can give the verbal and signal at the same time. If the dog is distracted by something in that environment, you can move to a quieter area.
Your dog is at a training class for the first time and is very shut down and will not take food.
Your dog is likely overwhelmed and scared, and is not in a state of mind for learning! Go sit in a quiet corner of the room and let her acclimate. Don’t attempt any training until your dog is comfortable enough to eat food.
Your dog is just acting off in a training session.
If your dog is not his normal happy self, and has delayed responses to cues he typically knows well, it’s likely he is not feeling well. It’s time to quit the session and try again another day.
Always End on a Good Note – Or Not??
One phrase I’ve heard over and over during my 20 plus years of training dogs is “always end on a good note.” Many people take this to mean that you need to keep cuing the behavior until the dog gets it right. Repetition over and over without success can be detrimental to most dogs. I will never allow more than 2 mistakes in a row without changing something to ensure my dog can be successful.
Sometimes, especially if you suspect that your dog isn’t feeling well, it’s best to just walk away from that session. It’s okay to quit. You will do far less damage to your dog walking away after a failed attempt than trying to repeat the behavior over and over until the dog gets it right.
Remember that your goal is a happy confident dog, so set your dog up for success as much as possible!