The next few blogs in this series will consider the various occasions under which I’ll ignore excellence in behavior chains in order to support a dog’s Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) or self confidence within the training relationship.

Today we’ll consider managing the dog when the handler makes an error.

My general rule is to provide a reward, even if this choice will reward a fault within a behavior chain.   Keep in mind that when I say “reward” I mean either a classic one (toys and food), praise, or the chance to continue on in the chain.  Let’s look at this topic more closely:


I set up for a retrieve on flat.  I say “stay” and then I send my dog to fetch with the WRONG command.  In this example, I cheerfully ask her to “take it,” but her cue is “bring!”  As a result, she looks at me with a ready expression but she does not move.

At that point I would hand her a cookie and act like she was the most clever dog on the planet, and if she had chosen to fetch I would have treated that as super clever as well. In essence, whatever choice she makes is going to be right.

If you ask your dog to do something that she is not trained to do (in this case follow an unfamiliar cue),  then she cannot win because there is no “right” answer.  Fetching a dumbbell on the wrong cue is just as wrong as doing absolutely nothing.  As a handler, your options are to either start over (effectively punishing the dog), or offer a reward.  I choose to reward so that my dog will continue to feel absolutely confident.

Hopefully I’ll do better next time.  Fortunately, single incident learning within behaviors chains is relatively rare, and it is extremely unlikely that one cookie will cause massive confusion the next time you throw that dumbbell.

Scenario #2:

I am directing a handler through a heeling pattern.  As I call a right turn, the handler is unsure of what I asked for.  They “bobble” their handling which throws the dog off, so the right turn is wide and unsure.

Your dog has no idea what “bobble” handling means so there is no way for your dog to be correct.  If you simply start over then you risk a loss of confidence in a dog that has been working correctly.  For your dog to maintain faith in your leadership then you have to lead so that the dog can follow.  Keep the dog in the game!

Hand over a reward or simply continue the chain as if the error never happened.

Scenario #3:

You’re running an agility course and you pull your dog off of a correct jump with an inadvertent twist of your shoulders.  Your dog “guesses” about what you want.  It doesn’t matter if your dog guesses correctly or not; reward your dog with a cookie or by continuing the run.  In effect, the error never happened. 

In all of the above examples, your handling made it impossible for the dog to meet criteria.  Since re-starting a chain means “you’re wrong”, then any other choice effectively punishes your dog for a circumstance over which they have no control.  That choice may not matter for dogs with stronger temperaments, but it can be death on more fragile dogs.  If you’re not sure about your dog’s tolerance for errors, watch your dog’s behavior carefully after you make a mistake.  You might be surprised at how often your dog’s next attempt ends with classic avoidance behaviors like sniffing or zooming, or with more confident dogs just a slight decrease in speed and forward momentum.  Go ahead and reward your dog and try to prevent those sorts of errors from happening too often.

In the agility culture, this sort of thinking is better understood than in obedience, because dogs with less confidence in their handler’s abilities are often slow and methodical, and a slow dog is the death knell of a serious agility competitor.  In obedience, on the other hand, slow and careful can be rewarded by high scores, so there is less incentive to  consider WHY the dog is slow and careful.

Sadly, I screw up more than I’d like to admit, because screwing up covers a lot of territory in the world of dog training.  I may have asked for a behavior that my dog cannot manage in a challenging situation.  I may have miscued my dog.  I may have put her in a frame of mind that is conducive for routine work but not for learning new skills.  I may have gotten distracted and disconnected.  There are a lot of ways to screw up, and professional trainers are not immune.

Your dog should not pay the price for your learning curve; if you make a mistake or “bobble” in training then reward your dog.   If you follow this rule while you are learning to be a better trainer, then your dog’s attitude will remain intact, even if you’re making a bit of a mess of the process.  Teaching behaviors is relatively easy once you master the mechanical skills, but recovering a dog with a bad attitude is actually rather difficult, and since dogs often revert to early learning under stress it can rears its ugly head when we get to competition. 

Rewarding a dog each time we screw up helps us get around that.

My next blog in this series will consider behavior chains and dogs working in an unusually “high” frame of mind.  In other words, should you reward errors of enthusiasm?