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Planning to Fail is the Path to Success

Posted on 07/07/10 37 Comments

When you plan to fail one of the most important components of your plan is “what do I do when my dog does fail?” To answer this question, keep in mind the most critical element of training the way I do and that is you must control the access to reinforcement.

So the first thing that you must do when the dog fails is to stop any reinforcement your dog is earning while failing. That is why my dogs’ see their first planned failures in a shaping session. The task is a simple one and it is also simple for me to control the reinforcement. I have them on a leash or in a tiny room with no access to other reinforcement should they decide to leave work.

In actual fact, my dog’s first Planned Failure event often happens the day I get them home. I start to establish for the puppy that all good things need to be earned, that you have to fight hard for what you want and that all good things come from me. The puppy learns it all in a game of tug of war.

While on my knees on the floor I get the puppy tugging ferociously then I take the tugger away and ball it up, burying it in my chest. I wait for the frustrated puppy to stop bouncing and biting at the toy then I give it back to her.

Her first planned failure and recovery from that failure, all happening within a game that is so fun she has no clue she is working and learning the rules of work. That is how training is supposed to be, work=play and play=work.

Where is the value for your dog? Is it with the toy or another dog or chasing?

Just know that; the value of today will become the distraction of tomorrow.

SOoo, lets bring this all back to recalls. Have all of the failures been planned? Have they happened when you can control the access to the reinforcement once the dog has made his choice to not do what has previously been reinforced?

Since I train without physical or verbal corrections it is important that my planned failures during recalls be effective. If you are not effective with the “withholding of reinforcement”, the only thing left for you to do is to introduce positive punishment (here is where those that are fans of electric collars would jump in). If you, like me, would prefer to train without the use of any positive punishment, then we are left with only two options.

1) Become a trainer that is brilliant with the manipulation of reinforcement or

2) Restrict or manage your dog for the rest of her life.

Does your dog know how to fail and recover from it? I would go back to a simple shaping session and teach your dog the lessons of failing before going much further in your training. It will make all of your future training much easier for both of you.

Think about what reinforcement your dog has earned while failing. Do you see now how that reinforcement has created the distracted dog you now have at the end of your leash? Reinforcement got you there and reinforcement can take you someplace else.

Many of you keep writing that your cookie or toy can not compare to the reinforcement value of the swim or the chase. Hmmmm . . .  so what can you do to change that? I will leave you with that thought.

Today I am grateful for all of you contributing and helping each other you all have been doing this week on my blog, keep it up!


  1. Ronye says:
    Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 7:20pm

    My Corgi does a great amount of sniffing for treats in the agility arena during class. She comes to me and I have rewards but only after she checks everything on the ground. We have been practicing the reward when she comes or head checks me but I feel I’m missing a link somewhere.
    Any key ideas?


  2. Sylvia Feder says:
    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 10:07pm

    Frances wrote: Is a reliable recall possible with every breed? The reason I ask is that everything I have ever read about my dog (a Westie) has told me never to let her off leash because Westies are very independent and won’t come back until they feel like it…..


    I’m guessing Susan would say that dogs of any breed (or mix) can have a reliable recall, though perhaps the training methods might be modified depending on the breed or the individual dog. I can only share my personal experience, which is from having another “never let them off leash” breed, in my case Inuit sled dogs (similar to huskies and malamutes). My first Inuit dogs (30 yrs ago) were never off-leash; the only time they got to run all-out was when they were hitched to a sled. I think they were happy enough, but I missed out on having them accompany me off-leash hiking, biking, snowshoeing, etc. After that first group, I’ve always let my dogs be off-leash, and I get tremendous pleasure out of just seeing them run. I have made a priority of teaching them enough of a recall that I am comfortable having them loose with me. Are their recalls “brilliant”? No — so like everyone else, I’m really looking forward to this class … but I do think it’s possible even in those “never let them off-leash” breeds. Again, speaking only for myself, I try not to let breed expectations limit when I can do with my dogs.


  3. Yara says:
    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 12:15am

    Does your dog know how to fail and recover from it? – No, he gets extremely frustrated and excited if he cannot get it right in a shaping session.
    Can you please give me an example of how to teach to fail and recover in a simple shaping session?
    So far I have thought that my shaping skills are not that great, and that my rate of reinforcement needs to be higher for him not to get frustrated?


  4. Frances says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:54pm

    Is a reliable recall possible with every breed? The reason I ask is that everything I have ever read about my dog (a Westie) has told me never to let her off leash because Westies are very independent and won’t come back until they feel like it. Probably as a result of this I haven’t really expected much. I am thrilled with the recall success I do have. (which is consistent only when I am carrying treats, there are no rabbits around and I’m not in a hurry)


    • Catherine Mills says:
      Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 2:08pm

      If you believe that Westies can never be trusted off lead then they will never be trustworthy. If you believe that your dog is the smartest dog on the planet and and treat/train him that way then the two of you will be unstoppable!


  5. Mary says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:23pm

    What about this scenario…. i.e. “self rewarding behaviors”:

    My dog will walk around people on lead etc. but taking her off lead she may decide to go and jump up on someone standing nearby and leave me…so no rewards from other person, etc of course and would love to wait for the dog to chose to come back my way but that feels like self rewarding stuff in the intruim. Am I wrong to think this? Should I run and hide from my dog and wait for that magical moment of “where’s the mama?” I don’t want to recall, as this is adding reinforcment to the incorrect behavior and I hate to pull her away as this then creats more drive to get to the person.

    Thanks if you can fit a response in on this one.


    • Carole Mann says:
      Friday, July 16, 2010 at 10:30am

      I sure would love to hear the response to this also Mary, I just got on to the blog today will check back if you hear anything


    • shenvaldogs says:
      Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 10:37am

      I have the same problem, did you ever get a reply to this?


  6. Dianne Marshall says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 6:54pm

    OK so this is a little off but since I am cracking down on the dogs and not rewarding unwanted behaviors my 19 year old is getting sucked in too. He is home taking classes on line this summer.

    Mac & Cheese
    The Right Tuna
    Cheddar Cheese

    Car Keys
    Extra Cash

    Good Behaviors
    Empty Dishwasher without being asked (and Asked)
    Laundry (wash, dry & fold)
    Help with dog training
    Empty Trash
    Water Greenhouse
    Mow Lawn

    Bad behavior
    Dishes in the sink
    Dishes in his room
    Finding the critical angle of repose of a trash can
    Empty gas tank


    • Naomi says:
      Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 2:39am

      Isnt that one of the really great things about training this way – you start to see how you can apply the same techniques to your kids! Not only does it work, but they like it 🙂


    • veronica says:
      Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 11:58pm

      This cracked me up!!Can relate to this .I have one of those other members of the animal kingdom too(a son).
      I also am applying Susan’s training techniques to him as well as the dog.
      good luck


  7. Taryn says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 6:00pm

    Sorry, but still no light bulb moment for me. Controlling access to the reward, wildlife chasing in my case, means staying on the leash, which defeats the whole purpose of a rock-solid recall.


  8. Trudie says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 3:48pm

    My weak point is lack of self-discipline: not working at getting a solid conditioned response, not following through by proofing distractions in many situations.

    I went back to Square One, and learning all I can about what is involved in recall work is taking much autodidactic work and persistence.

    I am beginning to find that the more I am aware of the repertoire of fundamental activities the easier it is to put them into practise in every situation in daily life.


  9. Soraya R says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 3:00pm

    Wow! Planning failures is the other half of setting your dog up for success — you need to do BOTH to teach your dog to make good choices. What a great lesson!

    Doing the homework, and now reading this post about controlling access to reinforcement also reminded me of all the little training opportunities that arise each day through controlling access to reinforcement/environment (e.g., asking for a sit-stay while you open the door). I have to work on my list of training opportunities to seize — there must be so many more that I’m missing out on!

    I also have a question. What about reactive dogs that go over their threshold (dogs that bark/lunge/overreact and lose their heads because of anxiety/fear, not necessarily just excitement and overarousal)? Is there anything that you would add or change in your approach?


  10. Stacy says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 1:51pm

    An interesting turn of events has happened for me and my 14 month border after months of working on recalls. With her finally responding well to our less distracting environments and now working our foundation drills in the area of chattering squirrels, at the end of a session, I set her in a stay, get her excited by saying “sssssqqquuril”, then release her to see the squirrels with me running excitedly with her and dancing around the area of the squirrel. She then quickly focuses back on me and I can reward this big time. Its lots of fun for both of us. I can then go back into doing drills or go for a walk. She now will recall off chasing squirrels.
    So, I think you could work up to using the swimming as a reward.


    • Carole Mann says:
      Friday, July 16, 2010 at 10:26am

      Stacy that is fabulous! I have a 2 1/2 yr old rescue BC and lots of squirrels about. On our walks, we have sat and watched them with rewards coming to the dog for a nice sit stay. I will try some release to his tug toy and get some play involved before trying the release to the tree with me going along. Thanks for the great input!!


  11. Amy says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 12:29pm

    I really wish I’d spent time conditioning some ‘easily controlled’ A++ reinforcers to match the ‘environmentally controlled’ ones (squirrels, birds) using good ol’ Premack. (Like you told me to in Ruff Love).

    And I wouldn’t have allowed my dog so much uncontingent (is that a word??) access to those A++ reinforcers so she learned so well how to tune me out and just get her jollies herself. (I believe you also told me that in Ruff Love).

    So now I’m back to square 1, Premack my B & C’s into A’s – I’m trying “Tug” for going out to backyard & “Tug” for me to put food in dinner bowl. Then I’ll work up to “Tug” to get (controlled, longlined) access to the park. . . but I could really use some more Premack games ideas!


  12. Bea says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 11:49am

    I feel like I’m going straight from grade 8 to graduate school! And my real challenges are breaking my own bad habits and learning to out think my (extremely smart)dog. But I’m also feeling really rejuvenated and like I’m actually attending a dog training class. Who knew you could do this virtually? Thanks, Susan, I know this is going to make a big difference in my life with my furry partner.


  13. Kirsten Kristin says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 11:49am

    I was in a class the other week and my BC didnt want the treats that she USUALLY takes at home. This opened my eyes and made me see I thought this treat was on the top of the list now I am going back to the homework again. Thanks Susan for the eye opening suggestions =)


  14. Deanna Fit says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 11:08am

    i’m getting that feeling i use to get right before a math exam and you’re trying to jam everything in and trying to make sense of it……

    maybe using the actual swim to reinforce something is a good idea……. but… removing her from the reinforcement(swimming) back to me is a…. difficult. ughh the light bulb hasn’t lit just yet =/


  15. Kathryn says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:55am

    I’d never considered getting a tattoo or embroidering a pillow until I read this: “Reinforcement got you there and reinforcement can take you someplace else.”


  16. Suzanne Wesley says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:53am

    Susan wrote:
    Many of you keep writing that your cookie or toy can not compare to the reinforcement value of the swim or the chase. Hmmmm . . . so what can you do to change that?

    ANSWER: Control the access the dog has to the distraction or reinforcement. Much like when Susan holds the toy to her chest away from the puppy she is in effect “controlling” the access to the reinforcement.


  17. Julie S says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:26am

    I have found that having a controlled environment 100% of the time is difficult if the dog can be reinforced by activity out of my control. During this initial training period would it be best to not call the dog when life happens and the dog is being reinforced by accident? In this scenario, I have gone and found other ways to gain control of my dog without using the recall command that I know he would not yet respond to.

    I am interested in learning more about how to help him with recalls in situations where I do not have as much control of the reinforcement (ie: rollerblader going past). I guess that means I will need to set up situations with willing participants to help me practice. That would put me in control of the environment. Hmmm. More work ahead of me.


  18. Cassie Levy says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:19am

    I think the answer to the question about controlling the environment when you can’t control the environment (lol) is this;
    If you put in the training first, in a controlled environment MANY, MANY times, then on those “real life” occasions that you can’t control the environment, hopefully your reinforcements will already be so heavily in place that the dog will make the appropriate choices. (so at first you would avoid the scenarios in which a less controlled environment is a higher risk)
    This is where the BIG hole lies in my own training with my “problem child”. I was worried about using other reliable dogs with whom I could work on distraction recalls, so I only ever worked on recalls with him in low distraction environments. So he’s only got a “partial” reinforcement for recalls in place. I was willing to control the dog and didn’t know how to control the environment safely. This was unrealistic because as I have figured out now, I will NOT always be able to control his environment and thus have set us both up for immense failure. With the help of two very good friends (and now with this blog also) we have a game plan in place to fill in some of our missing pieces.


  19. Clyde says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:46am

    oops. Sorry. I didn’t know Susan was looking so close.


  20. Clyde says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:41am



    The puppy jumps up on Susan bouncing and biting to get the toy. Susan controls access to the reinforcement (the toy) until the pup offers a behavior that she wants (sitting politely). She is also teaching “Its Your Choice” at the same time.


  21. Debbie says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:18am

    Thank you for adding light bulb moments to tailor my training sessions with my fearful Rat Terrier Girls Brigit and Sizzle. Writing / planning goals and steps and rethinking, rewriting, and replaning are all part of enjoying the journey as small successes emerge.


  22. Lora says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 8:56am

    I’d love to hear how you control sqirrels, bunnies, deer, or even the jogger on the road who likes to say “Hello puppy, are you barking at me?”


  23. Melissa Blazak says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 8:45am

    I think I’m a few watts short of a light bulb……


  24. Judith Batchelor says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 8:21am

    I have had more light bulb moments in the last 3 days then the last year.

    I am working with a distracted stressing dog that is like that because of my incorrect use of reinforcement. I have been helping my dog when he fails and thus he has no idea how to handle failure- then he stresses – disconnects and you know the rest. Thank goodness I have Christine B and this blog. put me back on track.

    I think the answer to the question of cookie or toy can not compare to the reinforcement value of the swim or the chase- Make sure the value of reinforcement for the recall in the “Controlled environment” has been well established- 80% success rate before moving to a new environment. Then move to a new environment (H) with a few more distractions- however set up success. Gradually work up to the larger distractions. I think you had to do this with Buzz for swimming. (Shaping success).
    Let me know if this is correct- (or not)



  25. brittany says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 8:17am

    I’m afraid I’m not understanding- I keep reading these posts in hopes of my lightbulb going on, but I’m beginning to think it’s blown.

    What does the dog do in the scenario above that’s a failure? All I see is reward, removal of reward, return of reward. What action precipitated the removal of the reward?


    • Susan says:
      Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:29am

      @Brittney wrote: “What does the dog do in the scenario above that’s a failure? All I see is reward, removal of reward, return of reward. What action precipitated the removal of the reward?” . . . aaah grasshopper, the lesson is so small, so slight yet so mighty. It is the start of the lesson for the puppy. I am playing and I take a break from playing — the puppy bounces off me, bites at my hands that are covering the toy, barks, does everything naughty to try and get me to give back the toy. The puppy stresses for a short period and each puppy handles that stress a bit different but most do what I just described. None of those response will be rewarded so the pause in the action lengthens. If when I had removed the toy initially the puppy, jumped back and sat or downed –the toy would have been re-presented immediately — but the puppy has had no reinforcement for that so I will build to that. This first lesson all the puppy has to do is nothing naughty. Here she is learning her choices control the game from continuing or stopping.


      • brittany says:
        Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:38am

        @Susan- ahhh. I did not see the break from play and then wickedness. Now I understand.

  26. Melissa says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 8:00am

    Thank you for all the hard work you are putting in. The more I read from you, the more I can put the puzzle together. I have never been so excited about dog training (hard to believe because that is my obsession). Can’t wait to get started with my new puppy (and keep working with the older “kids”) at camp next month!


  27. Esther H says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 7:27am

    you got me thinking and doing my homework. I’m defenitely joining in this summer project to improve my recalls and with following your advice I think more than just recalls will improve: my training skills, my understanding of my dog, his work in obedience, our relationship,…
    He’s 3 years now, but since a lot of shelter dogs can be brilliantly trained, I think that I should be able to correct or change my past failures in training. for now working on my lists of reinforcers and observing my dog.
    Thanks Susan!


  28. Karen M says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 6:55am

    More light bulb moments from the last 2 posts. Thank you for adding clarity to my training. I’m sure my puppy will be very grateful.


  29. Debbie says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 6:40am

    You have me thinking, thinking, thinking.


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