You’re Going to Make Mistakes

While I let Silas off the hook of being “perfect” years ago, I have a little harder time with myself.

Which is why I’m here to remind you that you are going to make mistakes with your dog. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” and “what do I do now?”

Every dog trainer makes mistakes. For those of us with less well-balanced dogs, it’s painfully obvious when we screw something up. Anxious dogs have long memories, and they seldom “get over it” no matter how much time you let pass. Overestimate their abilities to handle a situation, and you can undo a lot of hard work.

It’s easy to say “be more careful,” and then beat yourself up when something goes wrong, but that doesn’t help you or your dog.


Here’s my example from today:

Silas and I were playing a retrieving game. It was going great.

Then it went off the rails. First, I got greedy. He was having so much fun! It was our best retrieving in months! So I thought “Let’s do just one more!” (Pro tip: train yourself to say, in response to that little voice, “Nah, we’re good.”) Except the one more was really slow and kind of bad. “I don’t want to end on that! I’ll do one more, so we can stop on one of the great ones.” DANGER. ABORT MISSION. The last retrieve was perfect! I was so excited! I threw a big excited party, like all those trainers tell you to!

Except noise-sensitive Silas, focused on the second ball I was holding, wasn’t expecting a big party. He dropped his poor ball like it was a hot coal and cowered in terror.

Now, despite my best efforts at damage control in the moment, he is apparently terrified both of his ball and of bringing me things. (Yeah, this is really going to be a big setback on the retrieve front.)

And here’s where letting go of perfection is useful.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (although I might have, for just a minute, and that’s okay too), I am making a plan. When Silas wakes up from his nap, we’re going to do some hand-touches with high-value rewards. The absolutely most important thing is to make sure that he doesn’t get skittish about running up to me, so I’m going to go back and re-invest heavily in that step.

I’m also going to do some free-shaping games with the offending ball. (Depending on how this goes, I may change over to a different ball, but I don’t think he’s quite that frightened.) We’ll progress from there back to the retrieve game only once he’s comfortable with the toy again.

In a completely different context (probably with his favorite tug) I am going to work on his tolerance for sudden noise while he plays, just in case I forget myself in the moment again.

You’re going to make mistakes. Accept it, let it go, get on with a plan.

18 thoughts on “You’re Going to Make Mistakes

  1. Good reminder.

    We’ve all fallen victim to the “just one more time” temptation. When I’m training with Honey, I keep repeating to myself “end on a high note, end on a high note.” And I still blow it.

    Fortunately, we often learn the most when we make mistakes. Sounds like you have a good plan in place to work with Silas. And your strong background of training should make this a quick recovery.


    1. I’m actually a bigger fan of “stop when you’re ready.” I feel like sometimes wanting to “end on a high note” means you push past when the dog is tired. For some behaviors, if you do too many you just aren’t going to get another great repetition. Instead, you either teach the dog that training isn’t any fun because you aren’t rewarding the sub-par behaviors, or you keep rewarding the sub-par behavior instead of the great one that you really want. (Susan Garrett calls this CRAP–continually reinforcing ambiguous performance.)

      So by all means end on a high note if that means you stop in time, but if you’ve already accidentally done too many, just let it go. And, my other rule of thumb, learned from sad experience, is to err on the side of fewer repetitions.


  2. We have had some serious fetching setbacks, too. I was excited to show my dad Ruby’s newly acquired ball-catching skills, but when he went to throw the ball, he cowered. Only okay for me to throw it, apparently. And it has to be a near-perfect throw, a lot of pressure for uncoordinated me.

    That new pink ball she loved so much? It’s a light-up LED flashing ball, and I guess she failed to notice the light at first. Now she won’t go near it.

    And the worst of my recent mistakes: crate games while the TV was on. The subwoofer sits right behind Ruby’s crate. What was I thinking? So, she happily ran to her crate and then there was a scary noise, undoing all my “reintroduce the crate as a fun place where food happens” work.

    I feel you.


    1. My husband actually clicker-trained Silas to catch the ball mid-air. I am with you on the uncoordinated bench, so my mind boggles.

      Just as Silas was really getting excited about crate games, he hurt himself going in the crate somehow. Now, over a year later, he still tiptoes in. He’s willing to go, but obviously you have to go slowly or the crate tries to eat you. Which is a perfect example of why I think “balanced” training is a load of crap. One “punishment” outdid dozens (maybe hundreds) of reinforcements, and continues to do so to this day.


  3. Thanks for the reminder, which was desperately needed this week.

    A short list of recent failures to make you anxious-dog-owners feel a little better:

    Had to retrain heeling from scratch to eliminate flanking behavior

    “Just one more” nail trim caused Nala to declare herself done and leave. Sigh.

    Used Nala’s “drop” cue when she found an entire barbecued chicken breast on the ground but had no reward equal to an entire chicken breast. She now responds to the cue by continuing to tug gleefully.

    And the kicker: got overstimulated playing with my trainer’s dog last night and bowled over both my trainer’s dog *and* my trainer. Yeah. Cue the guilt, embarrassment, and pity party.

    (Of these problems, one is mostly fixed, two have clear plans for fixing, and the last one has a semi-plan. So. Trying not to beat myself up; this really helped!)


    1. Chicken breast! LOL, seriously. No, I don’t think you can top that with anything in your treat bag. I’ve occasionally let Silas go back to sniff disgusting dead things as a reward for leaving them on cue, but I don’t think you could do that with a food item.

      Smart dogs are brutal.


      1. Ha, right? And: who throws a whole chicken breast in their yard?

        And also: I am an idiot. I finally got Nala to spin, it was going great, I said “just one more” a few times because it was so cute, and then she realized I was luring over her head and freaked out. ARGH.


  4. I think “have a party” might need to be eradicated from the dog training vocabularies of all but the most unflappable dogs. I’ve startled Elka more than once with sudden and vigorous praise when she got some detail right, and she always gives me this look like “Why? What are you even doing?” Sometimes she’s into it and will jump around happily but for the most part? Nah.


    1. I’m in a Facebook training group and we polled “Does your dog find having a party to be rewarding?” Almost everybody who answered “yes” went on in the comments to say that they had tailored the party to their dog’s preferences.

      Praise is a weak motivator; I’m not sure who decided that more/louder praise was a good thing. Except humans are noisy creatures.


  5. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has had a ‘just one more’ disaster! You have a really nice walk so you think ‘ohh we’ll have one more ball throw or one more walk around the block’ and then you lose the ball on the last throw, or a squirrel appears or maybe a dog that wants to play with yours…in the mud.

    Since working as a dog walker, one of the main things I’ve learnt is to deal with the problem in that moment (even if I’m crying on the inside!) and move swiftly on. It’s disappointing when a walk doesn’t go to plan but you just have to think that’s just one walk out of the 2 or 3 the dog will have just in that day. You’ve got like 13 other opportunities for better walks throughout the week! 🙂


  6. I used to do “just one more” every time when I was puppy training Kaya. She always checked out & I had to settle for something mediocre. Not sure why I never learned my lesson. At least not for a very long time. I guess I’m a slow learner!

    Just curious…what does Silas think of loud tv noises?


    1. Silas can tell the difference between a noise on TV and a noise in real life. Even the really scary ones, like cats meowing. It took him a while to pick out TV doorbell versus real doorbell, but now he knows that one, too.

      I think “just one more” is a good sign that you’re having fun with your training. But still not a good idea!


      1. That’s good! My brother’s dog goes insane any time she sees an animal on tv. She even memorized certain commercials with animal visuals but not any animals sounds. She would be sound asleep, facing away from the tv, hear the voices or song associated with the animal, wake up & go nuts. Too smart!


  7. Thank you for perfectly timing this post. New people with two dogs moved in next door a few days ago. Though we built an inner fence ten feet from our boundary fence, my two haven’t accepted this change well. I was trying to get some urgent garden work done this afternoon when ours started trash-talking. Rather than interrupt my work, leave the garden, hike across the yard, and remove them from the situation, I foolishly asked them to come – which they were too excited to even hear. Fast forward a few minutes past my useless bellows and a timeout for all of us (I needed it most) in the house. and I suddenly remembered the foundation question “what do you WANT them to do?” I took our new guy Obi out with a leash, chair, a clicker and treats, and every time he glanced calmly at the fence: c/t. What a difference! Happy dog! Happy person! This is fun!

    I just hate it when I let my frustration overcome my patience and knowledge. Thanks for the reminder to let it go and plan to do better next time. Sigh.


    1. It’s such a hard process. I still screw it up all the time. I write it down here when I need to hear it the most.

      I think there is a certain ethos in a lot of dog writing that de-emphasizes the “bad stuff” in order to give people hope. I see this especially with narratives about overcoming reactivity–I stopped reading them, because in so many cases the story is edited to make it look like continuous forward progress. The down side is that this just makes us mere humans all feel like miserable failures for making the kind of mistakes that everybody makes.


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