What will happen when my dog gets it wrong?


When the dog doesn’t respond correctly or when she performs an undesired behaviour, there’s no reward. She doesn’t get to have or to do the good things she wants.

We can distract the dog so that she doesn’t have an opportunity to rehearse behaviour we don’t want. Cues like “leave it” and calm, non-verbal sounds are effective interrupters that help direct the dog’s attention way from the thing we don’t want her to have or to do and onto something that’s acceptable to us. Giving an appropriate chew toy can direct a puppy away from chewing on furniture or the trainer’s hands, for example.

If the dog doesn’t perform a cue, it’s important to ask whether we’ve made an error. As trainers, our job is to set the dog up to succeed, so what might have prevented success?

Are we in the right environment? Standing next to the squirrel tree is probably not the best place to begin teaching the dog to pay attention! A calm location with very few distractions is ideal for learning new behaviours.

Have we changed the criteria for the behaviour? If the dog has just learned to sit and stay in one place, asking her to hold that position for a full minute is probably more than she can manage right away. It’s better to work on the duration of the sit-stay in gradual increments. Similarly, if the dog has been able to do something when we’re two feet away, she may need to practice different distances before she’s ready to perform when we’re 20 feet away from her.

Were we paying attention to her? A puppy may pee on the carpet instead of going outside if the human hasn’t been paying attention. It’s the human’s responsibility to ensure that the puppy goes out very frequently and has no opportunity to make a house training error, perhaps by being tethered to the human or by being in a crate while the human isn’t able to pay attention.

Ultimately, if the dog “gets it wrong,” we have to look at what we, as trainers, have done or have failed to do. We don’t blame the dog if we haven’t directed her away from chewing on a table leg or if we forgot to take her outside right after dinner and we don’t blame the dog when she doesn’t know how to do something we’ve asked her to do.

We never use physical corrections, force, fear, pain or intimidation to get a dog to do what we want or when the dog doesn’t do what we want. Not only are forceful methods inhumane, they also don’t teach the dog what we do want her to be doing. Unless the dog knows what we want and is capable of doing it, we haven’t set the dog up to succeed.