Today I was reviewing a video for one of my online classes. The student was aware of three specific criteria to be met before she would reinforce with a cookie.  Everything was going great! And then, right in the middle of her training session, her cat walked through.

Her dog likes to chase the cat.  It’s been a longstanding issue.

Her dog started to chase the cat, stopped, and turned back to the handler.

In a case like this, what should the handler do?  Should the handler praise the dog for turning back and start over with her three criteria? Or should the handler blow off the pre-established training plan altogether and reinforce?

In this case the handler should reinforce. Why?!

Because chasing the cat has been a chronic and long-standing problem. So what’s the greater good here? The pre-determined training at hand, or the fact that the dog resisted chasing the cat? Remember, the dog chasing the cat has been an issue!

But what if the dog never chases the cat? What if it’s just another random distraction, no greater than any of the other random distractions that the dog normally has to overcome in order to meet its three criteria for reinforcement?

In that case, the handler should simply start the repetition over.

This is why I love training dogs.  Because so often the answer to a training question is “It depends,” but it’s not voodoo!  There are  reasons for our different decisions and they can be learned.  The trick to making decisions in real time is to go back and forth between the whole picture and then narrow in on your specific focus.   Work hard not to get locked in on the narrow focus!

To train well and effectively you absolutely need both skills. Consider both the circumstance at hand along with your pre-determined training decisions and goals.  What is the greater good, at that moment?

Consider how you handle distractions under a variety of circumstances.   If you don’t recognize your dog’s good decisions, then you risk your dog giving up and opting out of your training – losing confidence in their ability to win.  But if you are too generous, reinforcing when no true effort was exhibited,  then you risk that your dog will fail to develop endurance and tolerance over time.

These are not matters of right and wrong but they certainly deserve your consideration!