Training for Success

“Success builds confidence, confidence builds success.” A fellow trainer and dear friend, Mel Wilson of Canine Point of View in Jacksonville, shared that golden nugget of wisdom with me some time ago.

Those six words strung together have become a sort of mantra for me and remain at the forefront of my mind when training. For training to be effective, BOTH the dog and human must succeed.

Recently when teaching Saxon to “take a bow”, we experienced a good amount of failure at the start. I really had to break it down and make it easy. When he was not succeeding, he’d quickly lose interest, get frustrated, and give up. This was an excellent learning experience for me as a trainer – I had a taste of what some clients experience and can now better relate to them.

By breaking the trick into small approximations in short training sessions, I set Saxon up to succeed. He gained more confidence, which propelled him to engage and try to offer the behavior I was looking for. Breaking training into small steps at a pace that both dog and human are successful is crucial.

Recently I worked with a dog who was really struggling to understand the “wait” cue and began to get anxious. We took a break and I had his owner work with him on simple things he knew well and got rewarded for doing. Then we worked on “wait” again but made it extremely likely he would be successful, and he was back in the game!

Building success and confidence can do wonders for the relationship between dog and human. By approaching training with this frame of mind you become a team that works together to accomplish a goal.

In order for training to be effective, the rate of success needs to be high. It can be a bit of a punishment to keep asking a dog for something that they don’t understand and are not yet capable of doing. When a dog continuously fails, it’s usually the fault of the human.

If the dog keeps failing, you need to take a look at why. Are you asking for too much too soon? Is the context one in which you have never trained? Is your reinforcer not the proper currency for the dog? Have you adjusted for the 3 D’s of distance, duration, and distraction? Have you followed the 3 R’s of reinforcing the behavior you do want, redirecting the behavior you don’t want, and regressed when necessary?

If a dog fails at something, it can be helpful to stop asking for that behavior and go through a few reps of something the dog can do reliably. This could be a “watch me”, “sit”, or a “spin”. Setting the dog up to succeed with known cues can help get them back in training mode so that you can then go back to the first steps of whatever they were struggling with – start from scratch if you must!

When a dog or fails multiple times in a row, they will likely give up or check out. The same goes for the humans involved in training. It’s important to set the scene so that success happens from the start. Do this by controlling the environment, ensuring your reinforcement is adequate, and testing that the dog truly understands what you are asking it to do before progressing to the next step.

Failure is often the result of expecting too much, too soon from the dog. 

©Kate Godfrey, 2019