by Carmen LeBlanc, MS, ACAAB, CPDT

As promised in my last blog, Less Commanding, More Rewarding, today I’m sharing my answers to a question my clients and students often ask: So how should we respond to our dog’s training mistakes?

Your overall goal with positive dog training is to teach skills in baby steps, with maximum emphasis on rewards for success rather than on punishment for failure. If your dog is making lots of mistakes, stop! Don’t get mad. Your dog is not stupid, defiant or stubborn. Instead, think of your dog’s mistakes as information for you. They reflect your training abilities as much as your dog’s learning abilities! And they can tell you how you’ve made training too hard for your dog to succeed. So think about why the mistakes are occurring and how you can Back It Up, Break It Down & Make It Easier!

Let me explain what I mean by that and give you some examples:

Back it up

Let’s  say you’ve been practicing down-stays around the house, so now you take it out to your yard. But your dog’s failing miserably. He can’t even hold a stay for 2 seconds after several tries with delicious food rewards.  So back up your training. Go back inside, and practice down-stays indoors but with greater distractions — like a child running around, a toy rolling by, or you dancing! You might even try indoor down-stays but with a door or windows wide open so that you’re dog’s exposed to the outdoors — can smell and hear stuff — but in a milder, more controlled way than actually being out there.

Break it down

Let’s say you’ve been practicing waits (or sit-stays) at doors with your dog. She’s been successful with your opening the door wide then releasing her to go through with you. Now you want her to continue staying while you go through first. So you try walking through, but your dog breaks her stay and comes through with you without your release. So break the skill down further into smaller baby steps. First move just one leg forward one step. Reward your dog for staying for that. Then do a step-together, one leg first and the other leg joins it. Reward again. Then 2 complete steps, reward again. And so on.

Make it easier

Making training easier means lowering your criteria for 1 or 2 of the 3Ds (duration, distraction, distance), as well as considering your dog’s internal distractions, like his emotional state or need for exercise. With recalls, it might mean shortening the distance or minimizing surrounding distractions. With heeling, it might mean shortening the duration, increasing your frequency of rewards, and making sure your dog is well exercised beforehand. With stays, it might involve moving away from a distraction or scary thing (like a flag flapping in the wind), or throwing in easy, short stays as you build duration.

When Your Dog Doesn’t Do What You Ask

You can use the following techniques when your dog is still learning a skill, a phase called acquisition. But keep this key caveat in mind:  if your dog makes 2 mistakes in a row, you must readjust to your dog’s level of ability and understanding. His mistakes are telling you what’s too hard for him to do. So it’s time to back it up, break it down or make something easier!

During early learning — skill acquisition

For occasional mistakes then, during your dog’s early learning, your options include:

  • Give him another chance: end that repetition without a reward, but quickly restart: “Oops!  Let’s try again.”  This should be your main response when teaching your dog anything new.
  • Use body blocks: move forward toward your dog to block his movement with your body (for example, to reset him in a stay or prevent him from exiting through an open door)
  • In NFL, don’t give the life reward (don’t open door, don’t attach leash, don’t throw the toy).
  • Save the cue: get the behavior — positively!  (lure, prompt, gesture or verbal encouragement).

Once the skill is well learned — skill maintenance

When your dog doesn’t do what you ask during skill maintenance, you can use the techniques below.  Maintenance means long practiced, well established behaviors that your dog has done successfully hundreds of times in a variety of contexts, including places like the one you’re in:

  • Delay the second chance (a mini-timeout): end that practice repetition without a reward (no treat, no attention, no play, no door service, etc.) and wait 5 seconds before trying again
  • Time-outs: “Bummer,” and end your training session for 1 minute. (Make sure your dog can’t go running off to have fun during the timeout!)
  • Eat the treat yourself or give it to another pet, plus do a mini-timeout or end the session.
  • Physically — with gentle hands or leash guidance — reposition your dog, escort him back to where he was supposed to be, verbally remind him what to do using cues and an encouraging voice.

Remember that your dog’s mistake = a learning opportunity for you!