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Testing Feature

Posted on 07/15/09 21 Comments

To evaluate Feature’s understanding of her job on the contacts I needed to set her up for a planned failure. This was going to take a few days for me to set the stage. I spend several sessions over the course of the week reinforcing her with her highest value rewards; raw chicken necks, the chance to go swimming and the chance to go running with Encore.  All of that lead me to the big event. The planned failure.


I needed to get Feature to fail for one reason only. To see what she gave me after the failure.  Her response after the time out would tell me what I needed to know about her understanding of criteria.


Up until now anytime Feature failed at a contact attempt I did nothing more than withheld her rewards and set her up to try again. Keep in mind though she has never missed or left the contact without a release in practise. Failure to Feature would mean she may not have been fast enough or not straight enough, or not close enough to the bottom of the board etc. 


However the day had come when I was going to try for a major failure so that I could give her a “time out”. Today I had decided I was going to amp her up and make her give me a colossal failure in order to execute my test. Here is how I did it. I got all of my dogs excited to go swimming. Just before I let them go into the pond I had the Buzzy, DeCaff and Encore lay down as I ran Feature across the dog walk. Not only was she excited by the thought of swimming but I challenged her further by running away from the dogwalk on a diagonal across the field, towards the pond. That is all it took. For the first time ever, Feature ran her dogwalk contact at home.


I told her “you win the prize.” Now that may be a surprise to those of you that were thinking I should have told her “wrong!” or, “NO!” or “bad dog.”  I told her she got a prize and I said it in a cheerful voice.  I took Feature by the collar and walked her off the field into the garage, into a crate and then told the other three dogs to “go for a swim.” Ouch. says Feature, that really stings! I can only imagine that she was thinking “this prize stinks! I need to avoid winning this prize in the future!”


So Feature stayed in the crate, just around the corner from where the other three dogs were swimming. I only left her there for 2-3 minutes and then let her try again.  With the other dogs now in and around the pond (an even greater distraction than before) I asked Feature to do another dogwalk while I once again ran away toward the pond.


She nailed it. Gave me and awesome performance, rocked back, stopped in position and started nose touching immediately. I released her at once and away to the pond we went together.

Feature prepares to nose target at the NE regional in Washington. Another great shot by Ken Kennedy
Feature prepares to nose target at the NE regional in Washington. Another great shot by Ken Kennedy

Had Feature ran off her contact again (which I really didn’t think she would do) her lack of performance would be giving me great feedback about my training. It would have told me her foundation was not as strong as I thought it was.  The thing about punishment (the time out she got was negative punishment) is the dog should learn from it. If he doesn’t, it can mean that your foundation dog training needs more work and it would be unfair to continue to punish the dog. I may let the test happen one more time but that would be it.  


Your dog training should be centered around reinforcement. The only punishment used should come in the form of negative punishment and it should only be applied when there is a strong history or reinforcement first. The punishment ideally is planned and applied only when you feel it is absolutely necessary (10-20% of the time at the most). Once you apply the punishment you must evaluate it’s effect on the dog.  If the dog didn’t learn from it, change your path and use reinforcement to help create the new path you desire.

Today I am grateful for all of you. It is awesome to read all of the wonderful comments that have been written on my blog. I am thrilled that you allow me to play a role in your dog training.


  1. Christine says:
    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 7:14am

    I love to see that we are all human and yes everyone has failures. It’s what people do with those failures that counts. I loved this entry as clearly the ‘test’ was well thought out, planned and tested.

    I can imagine Feature’s face when she had her time out and all the others were able to play I had no doubt in my mind she would nail it the next time before I even read further as the proof is the proper foundation and that she understands what is expected in the performance.

    What I admired most from this entry is the time spent analyzing what went wrong and how to proof and test it. I find that so many are quick to blame the dog yet when the behavior is repeated (aka missed contact) the dog does the same thing when the obstacle is repeated clearly there is a link broken – I believe it all goes back to the foundations and criteria and were we consistant with teaching it.

    Thanks for sharing


  2. Ann says:
    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 11:53pm

    I laughed when I read this post because I just did something like it recently and it worked so well. My high drive ACD was giving me perfect contacts in training and in fun matches but not so perfect in trials. lol Then one day there was a fun match at a place where he had only been in a real trial. What an opportunity! The first course was perfect. Tunnel and then an A Frame right away! So I didn’t warm him up at all as, like you, I was aiming for failure. He did a mondo fly off and I smiled, picked him up and walked him back to his kennel. No words, just put him in. The, mostly Novice people watching were very concerned. Was he hurt? He was doing so well, why did I take him off?

    I waited until everyone had finished their run and then I took him back and did the same two obstacles. He gave me a perfect two on two off and stuck like glue! I ran out of the ring with him and gave him a very special jackpot. For him, it worked so well because he thought it was a real trial!

    My purpose wasn’t to test him but to hopefully fix a problem with my trial wise dog! I had no idea just how well it would work.

    Thanks for you blog, Susan! I enjoy your writing style and the stories and training tips that you share.


  3. Mary Muliett says:
    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 9:28pm

    What a discussion in the last few posts!

    Loving it….

    Didn’t know you were on this Blog Ron. In case you’re not registering my name I met you at UKC-Kzoo, I am the last foster home for the….cutest puppy in the world Mr. Jax 😉

    -little inside joke here!

    Take care – Mary

    Take care – Mary


  4. Ron Watson says:
    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 10:17am

    That was a quick turnaround of an off the cuff remark. Very cool! 🙂

    I think an important concept that you might be missing is this:
    the only one who really knows what’s being reinforced is the dog.

    We can think that we know, but we’re really just guessing. Paul’s comment above comes to mind here. I do think Feature understood the reason for the lack of reinforcement, but the question – What does the dog think is being reinforced? is an important one.

    By planning a failure and making it happen under a microscope, Susan was able to gauge Feature’s understanding of the criteria – Susan was able to check to see if Feature was catching what she’s been throwing at her.

    Take two gave us all some insight into Feature’s understanding of that criteria.

    I think about the clarity that Feature and Susan experienced after this session and just shake my head. Great stuff!

    I do this a lot in our game, but not nearly as elegantly – perhaps it’s the flair in the writing, or the frolicking dog image that’s in the set up, I don’t know, but my ‘tests’ are not nearly as cool. I’m also not a very precise trainer – teaching and learning, check, proofing… not so much.

    Thanks, Susan, for sharing.


  5. Jason says:
    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 2:22am

    I get lost and overwhelmed when i read your posts. I mean you say it all very well, I just wish there was a starter section or laymans translation of every post you make. By the comments it appears that many of your readers totally get it. Fine, I’ll be the class goof.

    It seems pretty simple, your overall methodology. I got the principles from puppy camp and your book, Shaping Success. Ron Watson said it well when he said that “the simpler something is, the less parts there are to understand. which means that you must fully understand the parts, or the gaps are HUGE.”

    I’m pretty sure i don’t understand. I think i fell in one of those gaps.

    I can hear you saying, just start with the foundation, do your crate games… 😉 Seems like there is more to it though. Some critical piece is missing for me. Experience seems a likely suspect. But if I had all the same paint, and the same years of painting, even a paint by number guide, would I create a masterpiece like Picasso? (art opinions aside)

    I guess there is some drive or desire that makes the difference? I know I am slightly off topic here…but here is the thing…how in the world, do you come up with –

    Feature’s response to planned failure gives you all the clarity you need regarding her criteria?

    Is it what you said previously? That you just can’t stand it. So you live to correct that behavior. There is not another option for you. Like – you will solve it. End of discussion. It will never be repeated. So…where does that come from? What combo of frozen breakfast shake, wii and yoga produces relentless demand for excellence? 😉

    Seriously. I want that pill. Do you sell it in your store? Can you just touch the tv or bless my dog or something? I know, I know…crate games. But keep me posted on the pill idea…I’ll order bulk…


    • Susan says:
      Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 7:32am

      Ok Jason, I laughed so hard when I read this post I just about spit my herbal tea all over my computer. I don’t know who said it but “frustration is a necessary part of learning” so it sounds like you must be killing it by way of education! Don’t be afraid to ask if you need clarification on anything. I have already started a post for next week based on some of the questions I got from the “Testing Feature” post.


  6. denise says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 10:20pm

    Thanks for the follow up post on Feature’s contacts. It’s given me some guidance on what to do with my own dog’s contact problems. Thanks!


  7. Bobbie Bhambree says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 9:03pm

    All of the planning and prep work required in dog training for agility is spotlighted in this piece–something I find very helpful. Thank you!


  8. Sarah says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 5:08pm

    While I find your foundation training information absolutely invaluable, I find it equally important to learn from excellent dog trainers about what to do when things go wrong. One of the most important times to evaluate and understand your training is when your training fails. Thanks for an awesome blog, I feel really priveledged to be a part of this online think tank.


  9. Michelle says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 4:27pm

    Paul: I think Feature’s history of reinforcement was so high with the correct performance that when she didn’t receive a reinforcement immediately, she knew she had not given the correct behavior. The time out in the crate was merely a continuation of the reinforcement being with-held. With the addition of the non-reward marker (you win a prize) immediately after the incorrect performance, the small amount of time spent walking to the crate wasn’t long enough for Feature to “forget” that she hadn’t received a reinforcement at the end of the dog walk.


  10. Meghan says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 3:59pm

    Wow I really learned a lot from this post. I was told to use a crate as a time out but never had good results and was actually making things worse. I now learned the problem was the very basics of her not being rewarded enough and not having the proper understanding. I can now see how it would work which I was convinced it doesn’t.
    Thanks for making me think of what I’m doing on a daily basis!


  11. Marianne Montague says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 1:21pm

    Thanks Susan, the post is, again, an excellent reinforer for me to plan out each training session carefully!

    But I am curious as to why you use an upbeat verbal when she missed the contact? Dogs don’t understand irony and it seems unfair, to me, to use an upbeat voice and then crate her. I’m not suggesting screaming or ranting at her, but I thought using a verbal marker in a neutral tone communicated just where the error is. Ie. when my dog enters at the second weave or pops out I’ll say in a flat tone… oops, oh my or nope. It stops the behavior immediately and then we retry. From my understanding of dog training, I would have marked the missed contact w/ a familiar verbal. Am I wrong?


  12. Laurel says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 1:18pm

    Thanks so much for sharing your training processes. Very thought provoking! When Feature ran off her dogwalk contact, I assume she was running towards the pond. Did you have to call a “leave it” or “come” to get her off the pond? Or, were you at the end of the dogwalk ready to catch her as she blew the contact? Just wondering what the behaviour immediately preceeding the time out was. If possible, could you elaborate a little?

    Thanks again…learning a ton!


  13. Michelle says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 12:30pm

    Okay, my treats majorly suck compared to yours. I will definitely have some major yummies tonight for class. Last week I stole my hubbies cheese curds but I have been lazy and used hot dogs in training. And I do see a difference when there are better rewards, duh!!
    P.S. Trudy’s nose touches remain amazing and I am being very good at reinforcing them. Now to do as good a job on getting those nose touches in the rest of my training. I am thinking more and seeing how application provides results. I also liked what you said about Decaff and having fun. That really hit home and its our number 1 priority. Trudy loves her nose touches has amazing confidence doing them, it seems so small but it shows me the character she is. Building!!

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.


  14. Kathy says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 11:32am

    Thanks for letting us in on the training process once again! I am learning tons long distance that I can apply to my own training here at home!


  15. Sherry in MT says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 10:22am

    PERFECT timing for me! This post really helped explain the portion of your Ruff Love book that I just finished yesterday and bring together many of the elements I’d just read! The picture is very much clearer to me now!


  16. Paul Anderson says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 10:05am

    How do you know that Feature was thinking I screwed up the dogwalk therefore I don’t get to go swimming? If you subscribe to the clicker training idea that the dog relates the reinforcement/punishment to the action preceeding the r/p, then Feature could have been thinking I am going inthe crate cause I wagged by tail, panted, spun around, layed down, etc. I think there was way to much time between the missed contact and the final R/P. The fact that he stuck it the next time was probably a learned behavior that if I hit the contact in a particular way I receive a reward. He may have lost some of that original enthusiasm and therefore was more careful of his performance.


  17. Nelci says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 9:59am

    AWESOME!! Love the picture of Feature on the Teeter. I do have some questions, after this “exercise” with Feature and the DW, what is next? Would you continue with your current training, change / add something? Would you know test it in competition before changing a thing?….

    Thannks, Nelci


  18. Jen says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 9:38am

    I LOVE this post! I am just getting onto this type of training (dog has to work for every privlidge) and it has made such a difference in my dogs. Last year my dog would have just taken off and gone swimming anyway and I would have been stuck without a way to fix it. But I think I can actually apply this method! Thank you Susan! You’re blog and books and the help of new friends has litterly changed my relationship with my dogs over the past year. If they could they would thank you….it took a while but Mommy finally gets it!


  19. Trudie says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 8:19am

    Having just read this post 4 times I can’t resist replying to say how much I appreciate it !

    It’s one awesome privilege to be able to read your post, and be thinking about it, just seconds later, no matter where one is in the world !


  20. Cindy Briggs says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 7:21am

    These blogs about your mechanics of training Feature have been some of the most useful information. Thanks for taking the time to detail the process.


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