I sat on the training field, watching him work his dog. 

He wanted to show me his heeling – he was hitting some roadblocks and wanted my help troubleshooting. 

He called his dog into heel, the dog swinging around instantly, in response to his cue. 

Labrador retriever practicing competitive heeling

Landing in position quickly, and gazing up at his owner, the dog waited expectantly for his next instruction, hoping he’d earn a reward. But he was a little crooked, his rear end slightly wide, and his front feet wrapped in front of the handler. 

Noticing the mistake, the handler helped his dog find the correct position, taking a step forward so that the dog would straighten himself out.

As soon as the dog got it right, the handler broke out and rewarded him before setting up for another rep. 

“Hold tight” I said, instructing him to put his dog in a down-stay so we could chat about his work. 

“What did you just teach him?” I asked. 

The handler froze. He wasn’t sure. “That he wouldn’t get rewarded until he was in the right position?” His tone was uncertain. 

“Maybe.” I responded. “But to me, it felt more like you taught him to come into heel crooked.” 

Listen, our dogs make mistakes in training, and so do we.

But how you respond to their mistakes can determine what lesson your dog learns. And always stepping in to help your dog find the right solution can create a pattern of behavior that won’t solve your problem. 

Here are some guidelines to help you better respond to mistakes made in training. 

Responding to MISTAKES

  1. Don’t ask twice! Repeating your cue teaches your dog they don’t need to listen the first cue you give. Not to mention, it can work to reinforce your dog for checking out! 
  2. Don’t help! It’s common for us to want to step in and help our dogs find the solution. For example, we ask them to HEEL and they don’t come in all the way. So we use our lure to help them find the right position. Or we ask our dog to sit in front of us (front finish) and they don’t come in close enough the first time. So we take a few steps back to help them come in closer. But doing this not only teaches them they don’t have to get it perfect the first time, but it can also create a pattern of behavior, where they don’t perform the behavior correctly because they think the help is part of what is supposed to happen.
  3. Reset, don’t reward! Reset your dog before giving them another opportunity to get it right. You can walk a big sweeping circle with them, or you can cue an alternative behavior before cuing the behavior they struggled with previously. 

Dealing with MISTAKES

“Let them fail twice, before making it nice” 

If your dog makes a mistake in training (when performing a behavior they know), reset and try again, repeating the exercise just as you did the first time to see if your dog gets it right. If they do, awesome! Reward them. If they don’t, help them find the right solution. 

Helping your dog after a failure: 

If your dog fails twice in a row, there are two different ways you can help them. 

  1. Make it easier! If you are asking for a down-stay with a 20 second duration and your dog fails twice, on your third rep (after you reset them) only ask them to hold the behavior for 15 seconds before earning a reward. 
  2. Guide or lure them! If your dog doesn’t take the position you’re after, you can guide or lure them into it after resetting. 

How to Help Effectively

Belgian malinois practicing competitive heeling for dog sports
  1. If guiding or luring, the help needs to be immediate. Don’t cue, wait for the mistake, and then help. Instead, pair the help with the cue. 
  2. Help three times, automatically! Don’t get yourself stuck in the habit of helping once, and then crossing your fingers your dog will get it right the next time. Instead, make your help automatic for THREE REPS in a row. Then, give your dog the chance to get it right without the help. If they don’t, help THREE more times in a row and continue repeating until you get a success. 

That day in training, the handler taught his dog a lesson. He taught his dog that he didn’t need to come into position correctly. He never showed his dog how to find the right position the first time. 

Had he continued on this path, he’d likely create a dependency. A dependency on that extra step to get his dog in the right position. And he’d have to troubleshoot a crooked finish later on down the road. 

So next time your dog makes a mistake in training, get strategic about how you respond and how you offer help. Because your response to your dog’s mistakes in training is equally as important as your response to their success. 

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    7 replies to "Make it or Break it: How to respond to your dog’s mistakes in training"

    • Laurs

      Wow! Totally makes sense.
      Thank you 😊

    • CB Wing

      If you use this as a reset (“You can walk a big sweeping circle with them, or you can cue an alternative behavior before cuing the behavior they struggled with previously.”) Aren’t you pairing that failure with another behavior that is getting rewarded and creating a chain? Sit crooked got rewarded by moving onto the next behavior, right? If my dog sits crooked, and I reset by asking him to lay down and then I reward that down, aren’t I rewarding everything in that chain? Thanks for clarifying for me.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Awesome question. When resetting the dog, we do not reward the “reset” behavior. We choose a behavior that our dog knows well, for example, I have a client that uses a SPIN cue to reset her dog. The dog knows the behavior well and rarely needs reinforcing for it. Since the “reset” behavior does not get reinforced with a classic reward, resetting the dog delays reinforcement significantly and redirects it to the initial behavior the dog failed on (assuming the dog gets it right on the next round.)

        • CB Wing

          Thanks for the clarification.

    • Rebecca Loveland Anastasio

      Thanks! That was very helpful! My dog is easily frustrated when he gets it wrong for any reason. This will help me to keep working with him in a way that is not frustrating while he is still learning a behavior.

    • Sage Paul

      Love this soooo much! So glad I was guided to your page!!!

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