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When it doesn't all go to plan!

Updated: May 5, 2020

One of the challenges for the modern dog trainer is deciding what to do when we feel our animal has made a mistake or error.

In the positive reinforcement world we work on the assumption that animals do not make errors. Instead they behave based on their genes, physical health, nutrition, environment, previous experience and learning history.

However, there are times when a dog will:

  • offer an incorrect response to a cue

  • offer an approximation of a response that cannot be reinforced

  • give no response at all

  • offer behaviour that is socially unacceptable

  • move towards or become involved in behaviour that is dangerous

  • offer behaviour that is inappropriate for the situation

When this happens we call it an error or mistake and need to choose how to react.

Giving Feedback

Feedback to learners is important and trainers have tried a variety of methods.

Positive Punishment, such as:

  • Electric shock collars

  • Choke chains

  • Prong collars

  • Pet Corrector Sprays

  • Water pistols

NRM (No Reinforcement Markers):

  • "oops"

  • "ah ah"

  • "wrong"

This was more humane but caused frustration in learners as it didn't give the learner any information on what would earn reinforcement.

Negative Punishment, removing something the dog wants:

  • Snatching the treat away to teach 'leave it'.

  • Withholding a toy or food until dog guesses at correct behaviour.


Time Outs, removing your presence, social connection, social approval by

  • putting dog in a crate

  • ignore dog

  • leave the room

This gives a learner even less information and causes high degrees of frustration, stress and confusion.

Some other methods that we try:

Interrupting; stopping the behaviour in the moment but unlikely to change future behaviour. This could still be experienced as punishing if it moves the dog away from something it desires or it could become a cue for another behaviour if it moves the dog towards reinforcement.

Dogs and Punishment

Our dogs can be very tolerant of punishment. They want to live with us and be with us so they put up with poor human behaviour. They often live with confusion and frustration and we usually only notice when they change their behaviour in a way that attracts our attention. If we fail to change our behaviour in response, then the dog often pays the price by being isolated, forced to wear uncomfortable equipment, drugged or even euthanised.

Punishment works, in the short term. This is reinforcing for the person using it so they are likely to use it again. Punishment and no reward markers are culturally normal in schools and families and extending this behaviour towards the family dog comes naturally. How many puppies think their name is 'no', they hear it so often?

What to do instead

Errors are information. They tell us that we need to be paying attention and considering what our learner is trying to tell us. This state of not knowing can feel uncomfortable pushing us towards trying to stop or fix the problem behaviour.

LIMA - A helpful principle is LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive). A visual aid for this principle is Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of Behaviour-Change Procedures.

I personally find this diagram very useful and know that the more experienced I become the easier it is to work around the bottom of the ladder. As a novice, I did not find this as simple and would frequently find myself working around the top.

To be honest at the time I didn't know that a lot of the interventions would have been placed at the top of the ladder. Everyone around me was doing the same thing so it was accepted as the way to train a dog, a cultural norm.

Things that were deemed 'acceptable' for positive training included:

  • Time Outs

  • Turning your back on a dog/ignoring a dog

  • Withholding food

  • Lead jerks or tugs

  • Saying no or 'aha'

  • Teaching 'leave it' by snatching food away

  • Teaching 'door safety' by shutting a door in a dog's face

The more I learned and practised, the less often I made my way to the top of the ladder.

Get Curious. Some questions to ask:

  • Is my learner well and physically comfortable?

  • Is there something in the environment that my learner is concerned about or inquisitive about?

  • Can I change something in the environment to help my learner be successful?

  • Have I explained the behaviour clearly enough?

  • Could I break the training down into smaller steps?

  • Has my learner got enough experience to carry out this request?

  • Do I need to back up and train some foundation behaviours first?

Look after yourself. Living and/or working with dogs with behavioural problems can be exhausting. Feeling tired or run down is a common pre-cursor for using management, punishment, interrupters or NRMs.

  • Ask for help

  • Find a positive trainer, day care or dog walker who can work with you and your dog

  • Find a supportive vet. Many dogs benefit from medication or herbal remedies.

"Errors are information not opportunities for punishment" Susan G. Friedman.

This includes punishing ourselves. After living with many dogs I would struggle without using interrupters. Once I would have been very down on myself and felt guilty for doing this but now I use them as cues to help change behaviour positively. I stop and reflect:

  • what exactly is happening?

  • what was the antecedent to this behaviour? Whether I sleep well or not can make a difference in how I react.

  • how is the interrupter being experienced by the learner?

  • what effect is it having?

  • what can I teach instead?

What strategies have you used and found helpful? Please get in touch and let us know.

Clare Russell Lisa Haydon

For more information on classes and workshops please contact or

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