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Rewarding Errors

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Obedience and agility require different behaviors, but both sports share some basic challenges that create grief for handlers.

Both sports require focus and impulse control without a leash and with significant distractions present.  Agility competitors struggle to maintain connection when the dog is working at a distance under speed, often with a good deal of excitement going on in the rings around them.  Obedience competitors struggle to maintain connection when the dog is working under the pressure of silence and formality for long stretches of time.  And both sports require a balance between handler connection and exercise (or object) focus.

Yet, the culture of the two sports is quite different in a fundamental way.  Agility handlers are trained to take responsibility for their dog’s failures (they are directed to change THEIR behavior), and obedience handlers generally hold the dog responsible (they are directed to change THE DOG’s behavior).  Which is not to say that you won’t find significant exceptions to both of these philosophies, especially at the lower or middle levels of competition, but if you pick up a book,  magazine, or online chat, you’ll understand what I mean.

Here’s a classic example:

Agility – “If the handler makes an error, reward the dog!  He did what he believed was correct!  If the dog makes an error, reward the dog!  He did what you trained him to do!”

Obedience – “If the handler makes an error, try again!  The dog has to earn those cookies!  If the dog makes an error, withhold reinforcement or fix it!”  How you fix it depends on your approach to training.  But reinforcement for errors? I don’t know anyone in obedience who actively proposes that solution, yet it is very common in agility.  A consolation prize, of sorts.  The “screw up” cookie.

It’s not that agility people are morally superior, or nicer, or like their dogs better;  it’s that the sport of agility requires a highly confident dog who has no fear of making an error, because worry impacts speed.  When the winner is usually much less than a second faster than the next dog in line, it’s critically important that the dogs believe they are absolutely correct.  Indeed, you will often hear agility instructors tell their students never to let their dogs know when they have made an error.  Simply continue on.

Obedience?  Not so much.

People say the two sports are different so cannot be compared, but these are issues of training specific behaviors, not of competition.   One dog doing an obedience directed jump for Utility and another dog learning an agility sequence are practicing the same skill; take the jump you are directed to.  Yet even in exercises with the same base behavior, errors are approached differently.  If you do some reading on email lists or magazines you’ll quickly get what I’m talking about.

There are exceptions in both sports and I represent an exception in obedience.  For a long time now, I have rewarded dogs for my handler errors in training because I see what happens to the self confidence of dogs that are held responsible for handler error.  They deflate, especially the less driven ones.

But I have not rewarded dogs for making errors when I believed I handled or trained correctly.  And now I am re-thinking that.

Here’s why.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog on rewarding a dog who was wrong when working scent articles.  You can see it here. https://denisefenzi.com/2015/03/09/scent-articles/

And I saw more response to that training blog than I have seen in months!  People tried it and dogs that have had long standing issues with scent articles turned around almost instantly.  Which doesn’t mean they didn’t continue to make errors, but now they were still in the game!  Willing to try!  If a dog is in the game then you can train through problems, but when a dog opts out, you’ve got a much bigger problem.  Dogs that give up simply cannot be trained using positive methods, and what fun is it to make a dog do things that they do not want to do?  And how well does that approach to training hold up in the ring with a dog that is totally disengaged and lower drive to begin with?

But this reality brings up more questions than answers for me.  For a long time I have used a Cheerful Interrupter (CI) to address errors.  The point of the CI is to interrupt the dog’s behavior while maintaining their enthusiasm and willingness to perform the task within behavior chains.  CI’s have worked extremely well for me, and as a result I have almost completely removed No Reward Markers (NRM’s) from my training because I place such a high value on a motivated, enthusiastic and fully engaged partner.

But what if I take that one step further?  What if I not only interrupt, but add a cookie to it?  How will that affect the dog’s willingness to withstand pressure? And what happens if I do not interrupt the chain at all?  What happens if I allow the dog to finish, reward and then set up the exercise in a manner that makes success more likely on the next attempt?

In agility it works. Consistently.  If the dog goes over the wrong jump then the handler throws out a toy, works to understand the error in either handling or training comprehension, and then the team either tries again with a better plan or returns to more basic behaviors to find the weak link.  So how about when my dog takes the wrong jump in Directed jumping?  Could that work for me as well?  Something makes me think…yes.

So where does this approach come into play?  Not in the shaping phase – dogs learn the basic component behaviors by marking correct behavior with classic reinforcement (cookie or toy) and incorrect behaviors by waiting.  Same in agility.

How about the next phase, where dogs are performing their known behaviors under distraction (proofing).  Can you reward if the dog fails to perform correctly?  Does it matter if the dog fails multiple times in a row? I don’t know but I have some guesses.

How about the next phase, where the dog is experiencing stress during the work, possibly as a result of the environment, or simply by virtue of being very sensitive?  I think that is  a place where dogs might be rewarded for error.  But all dogs or only some dogs?  I don’t know.

How about in the behavior chain phase – if you interrupt the chain where the dog makes an error, give a reinforcer and then start over, what happens?  How about if you allow the dog to finish, reward, and then change the exercise to create a better chance of success? I don’t know.

What are the relevant factors to consider?  Should the Consolation Prize Reinforcer (CPR) be of a significantly lower value?  For example, a cheerio vs a piece of chicken?  I don’t know.

Should the CPR be offered with a significantly different emotional response from the handler?  A piece of chicken and a party for a correct repetition vs. a piece of chicken and a chance to do it again for an error?  Should the CPR be one piece of chicken whereas the reinforcer for correct work is several pieces of chicken?

And how much do each of these factors vary by the given dog and their stage of training?

I don’t know those things either.  Of course, I have a lot of guesses about all of this, and I have two fine subject dogs to try stuff out on.   So we’ll see what happens.

If my part of training is to communicate expectations, and if his part is limited only to learning what I teach, what are the possibilities?

I’d like to find out.

And on an unrelated note:  Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has a new term starting on April 1st!  Registration starts March 22nd; some classes fill very fast so be ready to register at the correct time for your course.

This term I’m teaching Heeling Games and Bridging the Gap between Training and Competition.  You can see the full schedule and read more about your choices here:  http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/schedule-and-syllabus 

 

 

 

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.

20 responses »

  1. Pingback: Jag tänker inte vara rädd … | Stockholmshund

  2. I love that you ask yourself great questions and that you’re always self reflecting on your practice. 🙂

    Reply
    • It is amazing that Denise is so open to questions long held ideas, even her own. And to boot she should be praised for low cost classes and opening heeling games to 4H leaders for free. Positive reinforcement not only for dogs but for people too- a lesson many dog trainers could learn.

      Reply
  3. Great thoughts! I’m more of an agility trainer so much of what you’ve said makes sense, though I hadn’t explicitly considered your questions before, just done what ‘feels right’ depending on the circumstances & what I’m aiming to train.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for this post. I am just getting into obedience (mostly Rally) after 19 years doing agility. Luckily I’m finding mostly positive trainers to work with around here, but in a way I am glad to hear about what to watch out for. The wonderful thing about agility is that no matter what venue you do, your very first competition run is done off leash, so all of your training is done with that in mind. I think that has been the great saving grace of agility.

    Reply
  5. These questions crystallise some dull confusion I have had in recent times as I negotiate the move from obedience to agility. Cannot wait to see yiur results. The CPR idea doesnt resonate with me though I can see why you want to test it. Another idea comes from instinct: the use of ‘Sorry’+interrupt+reward. (I say it often enough anyway so I may as well try to build it in usefully and I think my sensitive dog ‘hears’ the absence of correction directed at her)

    Reply
  6. I totally love this blog – a truly successful competitor re-examining fundamentals. It really resonates with my experience in agility. I might also point out one other reason to reward liberally: handler error unnoticed by handler. Even with video, it often takes a keen – eyed third party to identify the error (thank you Loretta Muller) I recently submitted a sample video to an international level competitor with whom I’d won a free lesson. It was one I’d done for Loretta’s DFSA course. I was criticised for rewarding ‘mistakes’ ‘returns to work’ etc. I knew I wouldn’t have had a dog at all if I didn’t and the approach was so different to Loretta’s but no surprise. So not all agility courses, instructors or schools are so enlightened. Many never train a ‘soft’ dog or a dog other than a hand-picked working breed (ok, Border Collie) One size fits all is still a fairly prevalent view, with NRMs expected to work for all. Have to admit though, if they don’t, it’s still put down to poor training by handler 🙂 I wish everyone could do Loretta’s Fenzi agility courses to see the difference in their dogs.

    Reply
  7. Can you explain (or direct me to a blog if you’ve addressed it already), what the difference and/or similaries are between the Cheerful Interupter and a No Reward Marker?

    Reply
  8. Brilliant!

    Reply
  9. Superb article. I love the way you are never afraid to question if their is a different or better way to do things. It gives us all hope that work with the softer breeds as we have to take a softer approac and as is stated by Wendy one size does not fit all!! I myself work of the basis if I or the dog makes a mistake we just break and play forget about it and move on! Thank you for writing these wonderful articles. I find them invaluable!!

    Reply
  10. I’ve been using a CPR for several years teaching agility to my border collies. My female absolutely needed the CPR to keep going in her work. My male, however, knows the difference between a CPR and the real deal and will politely not pick up the thrown reward (toy). He’d rather do it again, and this time we’ll get it right. He’s shaped me to not offer the CPR anymore, since it’s of no value to him. Now with a whippet x BC puppy, she gets a CPR to stop her from aggressively trying to earn the reinforcement by throwing a million behaviors at me in 3 seconds. By the time she’s 2 years old I suspect I won’t be using it very much with her either because of the level of enthusiasm she has now.
    For those chains that are new to the handler and dog I think the CPR has a great deal of value in the training ring.

    Reply
  11. I’ve been using a CPR for several years teaching agility to my border collies. My female absolutely needed the CPR to keep going in her work. My male, however, knows the difference between a CPR and the real deal and will politely not pick up the thrown reward (toy). He’d rather do it again, and this time we’ll get it right. He’s shaped me to not offer the CPR anymore, since it’s of no value to him. Now with a whippet x BC puppy, she gets a CPR to stop her from aggressively trying to earn the reinforcement by throwing a million behaviors at me in 3 seconds. By the time she’s 2 years old I suspect I won’t be using it very much with her either because of the level of enthusiasm she has now.
    For those chains that are new to the handler and dog I think the CPR has a great deal of value in the training ring.

    Reply
  12. Reblogged this on Dogs On The Ball! and commented:
    From Denise Fenzi, who is always so insightful. I believe that in training for sports we must prioritize the “want to” factor and positive emotional response from our dogs, or sooner or later it will show up as a “hole” in training, but more often in the actual performance where the holes can’t be covered! This is especially true with soft and sensitive dogs, the mold in which all 3 of my current dogs fit. An ounce of prevention may well be worth a pound of cure, and definitely worth considering as written here by Denise.

    Reply
  13. I have to take a bit of an exception to your generalization about agility handlers taking credit for mistakes while Obedience exhibitors blame the dog. I have seen MANY agility exhibitors get angry with their dogs when the handler gave the dog a body cue that caused the error. I have also seen those same people storm off the course and throw their dogs in a crate to punish the dog for it’s willful mistake. I have been to MANY Obedience Trials, and the crowds I run with do not blame the dog. There are people in agility who do blame their handling and there are people in Obedience who do blame the dog. I have not seen a larger number, as you describe, in Obedience than agility who blame the dog.

    As far as the main point of your article, yes, playing with the dog, rewarding effort, and not discouraging mistakes until one is 100% sure the dog knows an exercise and is simply choosing not to do what is asked (provided there is no physical reason for refusal) is definitely the way to train! I have found it very effective with my dogs!

    Reply
  14. I remember my old dog, Zari, breaking an obedience stay in competition years ago. I went back to her and praised her like crazy, the other handlers must have thought I was mad, but building her confidence was a darn sight more important than the exercise. Don’t think she ever broke a stay again !!

    Reply
  15. Can I vote for you for President… of like everything?? Let me know where to sign up for that!!

    Reply
  16. Pingback: On Sensitive Dogs | nala the wonder dog

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