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What to Do When the Dog Gets it Wrong

By:  Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc



Anyone teaching something new has experienced this at some point, whether the learner is a dog, horse, child, or adult.  We are trying to elicit a certain behavior, but the learner keeps giving the wrong one.  You may want to encourage them, but you are afraid of rewarding unwanted behavior.  Things are going in the wrong direction.  At the same time, the worst thing we can do is kill a dog’s desire to take part in the game at all. 


What should you do?


There are several paths one could take:


·        Correct them for their mistake (e.g. saying “no” or other no-reward marker)

·        Stop the training

·        Ignore the repeated mistakes (and withhold rewards) and try again

·        Reward them anyway for the other things they did correctly

·        Change what we are asking them to do (take smaller steps)


Generally, I error toward the last two, depending on the individual dog and situation.  Whether teaching adults, children, or animals, the answer is usually the same.  We have to set them up for success.  It is one thing to occasionally get the answer wrong, but if they are repeatedly struggling then we need to do a better job of setting them up for success.  Animals may not choose to be there, but they definitely choose the level of effort they give as they work with us. 


How do we go about getting maximum engagement?


“No reward” markers are not inherently bad.  The problem with no-reward markers is they can stigmatize failure.  They can create inhibition in some animals about trying any answer for fear of getting it wrong.  This can inhibit exploration of their environment and limit their active engagement with us.  This tends to be more of an issue when the challenges are too difficult at their current stage of progress, the training environment too distracting or stressful, or the owner is not giving enough information to help them decipher the right answer.  Have you ever been the person who is afraid to raise their hand when the teacher asks a question?  I have memories of this with teachers who were not encouraging, and instead would say “nope! Got it wrong!” or other discouraging responses.  Having that happen can kill any desire to put oneself out there.  Similarly, repeatedly being told “aaaa! No!” can create a fear of exploring and trying in our animals, particularly if they are sensitive or have a history of frequently getting things wrong. 

Remember that with good LEADERSHIP – the buck stops with the leader: the teacher, the owner, the one who is raising the challenge in the first place.  It is essential to carefully choose what to train, what information we provide during training or when asking them to make a behavior choice, where and when we train and challenge them. 


Ignore what you don’t like?  Well, sometimes that can be a good choice if the mistakes are extremely few and far between.  Then we can take action by modifying how WE are choosing to teach so the next time it goes correctly.  When I was a graduate student teaching university classes, I had to consider whether I was teaching material effectively if I saw students repeatedly getting the same question wrong on a quiz or exam. 

I had to consider:

·        maybe I needed to teach that material in a different way for the learner to better grasp the concepts. 

·       maybe I needed to spend more class time on the material

·        maybe I needed to provide a little more information in the question so they could have more possibility of choosing the right answer. 


It is easy to blame it on the quality of the students or their limited effort, but that is a cop-out.  Repeated mistakes are not something to ignore but instead a red flag for us to do something differently.  If the learner gets an answer wrong and is offered a do-over to “try again” then they better get it right at that next attempt.  If they get things wrong yet again and again, it can lead to giving up.  It creates a pessimistic atmosphere about engaging in training.  If the dog gets it wrong, try asking for something easy that they already know well.  This will give them the satisfaction of getting something right and finally earning that “reward”.  If the session is ended and they did not get the reward, there will likely be a feeling of frustration.  Do not end the session until they get the reward – even if it is for a simple behavior.  After doing the simple tasks, you could then try again.  However, they need to get it right this time to avoid frustration. That responsibility falls on the teacher/owner/leader.  Give more information, or ask for a slightly easier version of the original behavior you asked them to do where they can be successful.  Do not create a frustrated dog who dislikes training with you.  Be a provider of information and a giver of rewards and rewarding opportunities.


If they do something wrong in a lengthy behavior – e.g.  on mistake in a sequence of agility obstacles, breaking out of “heel” position temporarily, or a mistake during a lengthy involved trick --  it does not hurt to reward them anyway for all the things they did RIGHT.  Be a generous teacher and training partner.


Do not ignore 9 correct behaviors to punish them for the one thing they did wrong.


That is a recipe for a non-engaging partner who does not like to work with you.  It takes work to maintain that joy to work together when delving into challenging material.  Always praise and reward, even when things are not perfect.  Then next time, set them up for success by being clearer with what you want, make the task simpler/shorter, or break down the task to work individually on the section where they made the mistake.  On the way to brilliance there is a long road with some wrong turns, back steps, and mistakes.  Do not let perfection be the enemy of the good. 


Want to have them very quickly offering the right behavior rather than stalling? 

Train in a way where tasks do not feel overly challenging and their behaviors (their “answers”) are elicited rapidly after you ask.  It may involve more steps but it preserves speed, engagement, and willingness to please.  It is definitely more fun from the learner’s perspective and better for the long-term relationship.  Don’t train in a way where it takes lots of mistakes, lots of pleading and negotiation to get them to do it.  Each learner is a new challenge for us as teachers, dog parents/owners, and handlers.  Always be willing to re-evaluate a situation to better set up your animal (the learner) for success.


Example: A long "Stay" in a busy outdoor environment

Let’s look at if someone is asking their dog to sit and “stay” in a busy outdoor environment while they walk 20 feet away, but the dog repeatedly breaks the stay to follow them.  They could ignore that wrong behavior but the dog likely will keep getting it wrong over and over.  The dog will get frustrated if he isn't already.  My first suggestion would be to train “stay” first in a familiar, calm environment like inside their home or back yard before attempting it in a distracting environment.  Then, break down the behavior into simpler steps.  Reward the dog for remaining in a “sit” for several seconds while the owner remains next to the dog.  Then give the release word.  Do this several times, and then have the owner shift weight between feet while praising and rewarding the dog for remaining in the “stay” for just a couple seconds.  Then give the release word.  Eventually, if all of this has been successful then try adding very small amounts of movement away from the dog (like slowing pivoting/turning to the left/right, or taking 1-2 steps away), but come back and reward the dog every few seconds during the “stay”.  Once the behavior is easy for the dog to perform, use less and less rewards until there is just the reward at the end of the completed “stay”.  Let your dog (the learner) have lots of success with gradual steps rather than correcting them 99 times to get 1 successful repetition – and a deflated training partner.


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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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