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End on a positive

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Recently I wrote a blog post on “common knowledge” where I suggested that training didn’t necessarily need to end on a positive note.

Several facebook posts picked up on this thread, with back and forth discussion about the potential pros and cons of ending on a positive or negative note.  Lots of thoughtful points of view!

There are two major reasons why I believe you’d want to “end on a positive”.  One was the original issue of escape/avoidance training – you never wanted to teach the dog that failure to perform might get them out of work.  As I said in the original post, this made sense in a time when training was rougher and rather unpleasant.

However, there is a kinder (and still relevant) reason for ending on a positive – to leave the dog with a positive association about training.  That makes sense to me as well.

So what exactly did I mean by saying “don’t bother ending on a positive?”

I didn’t  mean that you HAVE to end with failure, just that if training begins to go wrong you do not need to push through until the dog performs correctly.  That is the misconception – that you must push through.

There are two occasions under which I see particularly bad training.  The first is when the trainer becomes angry.  Angry trainers and good training are simply an oxymoron – the cannot co-exist.  If you want to set your training back months, get mad and push through until you “end on a positive.”  It’s a recipe for dog abuse.

The second place I’ve seen really bad training is when a session has gone poorly and the trainer cannot instantly assess how to go about fixing the problem.   Rather than putting the dog away and giving it some serious thought, the trainer will start running through random and various options, with very little thought to what really makes sense.  In short, they begin to dig.

Devising a good training plan – including problem solving – takes thought.  An experienced trainer might be able to problem solve on the fly, but a less experienced trainer almost always needs to think about what is happening.  There is no reason for the dog to watch you stumble around – someone is supposed to be leading and my dogs expect that to be me.  If I don’t  know what I’m doing or where I’m going, I’m going to have a terrible time telegraphing that sense of control and leadership that allows my dogs to follow confidently.

I don’t ALWAYS end when something goes wrong, but when training gets weird and unexpected, the majority of the time I need to stop and think about what is happening.  With a young dog, training often goes poorly because the dog is tired or over faced – better to stop training at these early warning signs rather than waiting for that brilliant moment where the dog figures it out. Yes, the dog might figure it out.  Or you might be digging a very deep hole.  Honestly, I’ve seen more holes than light bulbs.

In training, there are very few rules or absolutes.  What separates an experienced and confident trainer from a less sure trainer is the ability to figure out, in the moment, what is the best decision.  It might be to push through,  to change exercises, or to end training immediately.  Sometimes you might choose to hang out and take a break.  It depends on the trainer and the dog.  It depends on the root cause of the failure.  Most important, it depends on your mood and how you are reacting to the mistakes.

So in short, it depends,  which was my point in the first place.  Good training is not a function of rules and common knowledge.  It is a much deeper (and more challenging) pursuit that involves two beings with good days, bad days, and very unique temperaments.

So…do I believe it’s important to end on a positive?  No.  Do I think it’s important to end on a negative?  No.  What matters is that my decisions allow my dog and myself to form a richer and more trusting partnership.   Absolutes make that close to impossible.

There is another reason why I choose to end on a negative – sometimes I’m specifically doing it to punish a dog for a choice they have made.  I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming blog.

Thanks to all who consistently manage to engage in interesting, articulate, and well thought out discussions about various topics that I bring up here.  I love to read your thoughts, even when I don’t necessarily agree with your conclusions.

And on a completely different note….several of you have asked me to let you know when I teach an online heeling class.  Registration will open Feb 1st for Precision Heeling; you can get more information here on my blog from the tab above called “Class Schedule -Local and Online”

When precision heeling ends I’ll offer a class on heeling games.  Precision heeling will be a prerequisite skill for heeling games, so please at least observe this class if  you’re interested in working or auditing the next class.  See the website for any questions you may have!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

11 responses »

  1. thank you for explaining this! I have been thinking & thinking about NOT ending on a positive note ever since you wrote the post, I just couldn’t grasp the concept, now I “get” it 🙂 I should have just asked you lol!

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  2. I’ve occasionally worried that ending on a positive, even if you give a big reward, etc., might inadvertently punish the dog for doing it right, leading the dog to not try that particular method again. Is there a distinct way you clarify to the dog that the session is ending because they did the wrong thing? Or is it just that you don’t reward? For my dogs, sometimes being able to run again is the best possible reward.

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  3. One of my guiding principles–when I can remember to apply it; I’m very stubborn–is, “If you find yourself in a hole, STOP DIGGING”. It applies to all realms of life as well as dog training, but goes double there, since two lives are affected. Whenever I clamp my lips & start breathing hard through my nose my dog launches into her repetoire of avoidence behaviors. She’s pretty smart. I just need to read my own cues. It’s especially hard for me to stop if I’ve driven an hour to the club building, or paid for ring time. Money seems to trump sense sometimes.

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  4. Great post, as always. I often end training sessions on a ‘negative note’, when the dog disengages and so I just walk off and do something else – opportunities for rewards have ceased. However, sometimes when the dog is performing very well, I don’t have these windows to punish inattention with the cessation of my training session. In these scenarios, I often will reward the dog with a handful of kibble on the ground (in a food training session), praise them, and walk away. They spend a bunch of time walking around sniffing for food and don’t recognise that the training session has ended. I would love to know if you have ‘better options’ for ending a session on a ‘good note’ without inadvertently punishing the dog (by ending a fun training session).

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  5. Currently, I’m paying for private lessons in competitive obedience just so I don’t ever again travel into hole-digging territory. Rather than get into dark, frustrated, moods, I can just get out my dog’s frisbee, or her toy on a string, and play for a while when I hit a road block and things aren’t going well. I know that I can simply wait to go over the problem with my instructor within the next week or so. It’s really nice to feel free to put problems in training aside knowing that I will have someone to show me what to do about it. Of course, when he asks, ‘what did you try?’, I haven’t yet told him, “I played frisbee”. But maybe I will sometime, he would probaby think that’s pretty funny.

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  6. Very thought provoking! I didn’t get a chance to respond to the last post, but I am one of those who strives almost always to end on a positive note. The main reason I do this is to create a good state of mind about training and working with me in general. I’m always reminding myself that it isn’t just shaping, rewarding, and applying the “operant” laws of behavior. As Bob Bailey said- Pavlov is always on your shoulder. And for good and bad things. So I try to engineer my training situations to condition a very positive context for working with my partner. Ending on a good note helps me as much as the dog, and we are a team, if something helps me more than the dog, in the long run it helps both of us.

    I also do believe that, in many dog activities, it is important to teach a dog to work through difficulties. I have worked in many dog “sports”, but train primarily for herding now (aside from tricks and general companion behavior). Sometimes bad things happen that are out of the handler’s control. I always want my dog to feel as good as possible about this demanding activity.

    As far as punishment goes, I’d prefer not to punish my dog when they don’t get another chance to “rectify” the situation. Sometimes, such as at a trial when the team is excused, it’s not possible to set up an opportunity for success. And sometimes it requires some backing up/simplification so the dog can succeed. I also do believe in taking breaks and trying to think things through.

    I totally agree that anger has no place in training. Managing disappointment, too, is an area of growth for many handlers.

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  7. I do try to end of a positive, but I usually do that by finishing a session with something easy that I know my dog loves to do anyway (nose touches, weirdly, or set point), but once we finish the fun doesn’t stop for us. Since I use a thrown ball to reward when I’m working outside on agility stuff, as I’m putting the equipment away I keep throwing the ball. Ending on a positive then gets rewarded with lots of fetch, which is my guy’s favourite game. If I finished with something I wasn’t happy with then I would be rewarding an unwanted behaviour. But since I finish with success (and purposefully, but ending with an exercise I am nearly 100% sure he will succeed at) it keeps things upbeat and he gets an extra reward (“you did great so now you don’t have to work for the fetch, you can just chase”). Now, on occasion if he does something brilliantly that I’ve been working on I’ll stop training there, but I’ll still keep up the game of fetch so I’m ending with an easy game, not with training. Just part of my dastardly plan to convince my dog that agility is a big, fun game that he likes as much as I do.

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  8. Something I always keep in mind about when to end a training session. “When you find yourself in a big hole, stop digging.”

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  9. I can’t imagine pushing through anything in dog training. When things aren’t great, I switch gears and do something else, maybe something they know. Or maybe I just end the training. Ending on a positive doesn’t mean “pushing through” for me, it simply means ending on a happy note. Sometimes I’ll just stop whatever I’m doing that’s not working and just play and end training that way. In the end, I’ll come back to that challenging thing he wasn’t getting the next day and if doesn’t work, i don’t push through. I just keep trying on different days, in different ways and eventually there’s a lightbulb moment for both me and the dog. It’s always about the journey for me, not so much the end behavior. What did my dog NEED from me in order for HIM to do the behavior I wanted. What was his method of learning that got him there? That to me is golden and helps me in future training. It’s fascinating because I have two totally oppositely motivated dogs (a GSD and a Sibe). They both NEED different things from me to eventually get to the exact same behavior. Totally different dogs, but each one does almost everything the other does. But they got to those behaviors in different ways. When one isn’t getting it, I don’t see it as their failure or even mine. I view it as a challenge to be done in small steps, trying different things on different days. I can’t imagine getting angry. I get bored with failing before I get angry. And that means it’s time to table that “trick” for another day.

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  10. Sent from my iPad

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  11. It took me a while to learn that “ending on a positive note” really means to have very short training sessions. When things are going well, it’s very reinforcing for me! I want to keep going, which usually means I keep going to the point of mistakes. So I’ve learned to stop right in the middle of a great training session – at the peak of success for that step or objective.

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