Planning to Fail

Posted on 07/06/10 16 Comments

Reading through your questions and comments on recalls makes me wonder if you guys have introduced what I refer to as “Planned Failures” in your dog training.

Planned failures happen in a controlled environment when the following conditions apply.

Don’t fall for any cute looks when your dog fails, be strong and don’t “help” them.

1) First and most importantly there has been tons of reinforcement for the correct response. Build the value before you test the value.

2) The reinforcers the dog was given prior to the planned failure are so off the chart high in value the dog would never dream of not continuing to try to earn them.

3) The distraction I introduce is severe enough to cause a failure but not so challenging that I know there is no hope of my dog ever being successful at his current stage of learning.

4)The dog is in a controlled environment where little to no reinforcement can be found. You may control the environment by training in a small room in your house (I had one bathroom in the new house built specific for this reason) or by using a leash or baby gates or an ex-pen to restrict the dog’s movements.

Why do I set my dog up this way?

1) It stresses my dog. Stress is a part of life. Dogs need to learn to work through stress and not shut down and give up. The dog needs to learn how to work through an error and keep on trying because awesome reinforcement is right around the corner.

2)It allows me to test the boundaries of the dog’s understanding of the response we are training. So often trainers will tell me “but my dog will do this perfectly at home.” A big reason for this phenomena is that you have never really tested the dog’s understanding to make sure he “gets it”.

Those of you that bought my first ebook on weave training, there is a section in there on “Green Eggs & Ham Distraction Training.” This is exactly what I am talking about. “Can you do it with a fox or in a box, can you do it here or there, can you do it anywhere.” Test the boundaries of understanding in a controlled environment so you can discover the dog’s weaknesses and work at strengthening them.

Go back and look at disc 2 from the 2×2 DVD. You will see plenty of examples of planned failures with Feature at only 14 months of age. The cool thing that happens when you always train with planned failures is that sometimes you plan your failure but your dog surprises you and is succesful! That is way cool. It means the dog understood the behaviour better than you thought and you can fast track your training.

When training my dog it is my goal that all of the failures that happen are planned. Now, that doesn’t always happen, but it is a goal. If I have a response that has more unplanned failures then planned it must mean that I have been caught off guard too often and I will work hard to control my dog’s reinforcement better in the future.

Tomorrow  I will go further on the number one most important point about failure; what to do when it happens.

Today I am grateful for air conditioning in our office and am visualizing a day soon when we will have it fixed throughout the rest of the new house:).


  1. Jenny Yasi says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 12:17pm

    I retrained my bird-dog using your 2×2 method, and I trained my sato from scratch using that method, and in both cases, the lanned failures worked really well. Or maybe I should say, the anticipated failures. Mostly they got it right, but when the criteria changed, they’d make an error, as expected, and you could just SEE the smoke pouring out of their ears as they figured this out! Charlie, my Puerto Rican beach dog, was SO PROUD and pleased as could big as he started solving the puzzle! Getting it wrong doesn’t bother my dogs when they have enough of a chance to get it right! Success is sweeter after a little bit of failure!


  2. Renee says:
    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:57am

    Today I tried some behaviors in front of a mild distraction. Bryher on leash (of course!) and just voluntary eye contact or a sit.

    Question: Do you reward your dog for doing a couple of rehearsals of a behavior with an activity (on cue) like digging, swimming or running or do you just leave the environment and take the dog home with you, so he does not get reinforced by the environment.


  3. Andrea says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 7:01pm

    Air conditioning – I crave air conditioning … whoops talk about a distraction – planned failure? Very clever if so 😉

    I don’t know if I’d call what happens here planned failure or controlled chaos either way I get your point agree. Stress is an important element in success!


  4. Christy Skinner says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 5:35pm

    What if your dog doesn’t have an “off the chart high in value the dog would never dream of not continuing to try to earn” treat or toy? Only the tennis ball is of that high a value but even then, he will ignore it for something more interesting like a squirrel, cat or another dog. That’s the main problem with type of training. My Border Collie doesn’t find any value in food whatsoever. I’ve tried every kind of treat/food you can think of. He’s so skinny, I don’t dare stop feeding him and only using food to train with. He just won’t eat at all then. Any suggestions? [email protected]


    • Jan says:
      Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 10:22am

      My BC is the same. I have never received any advice on dealing with this total disregard of food. By the same token, I am not willing to STARVE the girl to create interest. Have you come across any suggestion that will help me with her motivation?


    • Colette says:
      Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 6:16pm

      Hi There. I hope this might help you out. You can actually teach your dog to be more motivated by food or toys. The more you hand feed in trade for behaviours and the less you free feed (Where food is available all during the day) the more interesting the food will be to your dog.

      In my experience, (although not vast) dogs LOVE to work and get paid for it. For example, before supper time, take your dog out for a walk. Have a high value treat that they will take in the house (Or their kibble,if they will take it.) Ask for a sit/give a treat, get leash on. Ask for a sit/give a treat, door opens.

      when they are outside, offer a treat in trade for any time the dog looks up at you. (This will not happen when they are distracted, so do not try to feed them during these moments….only for what they CAN offer you at that time.) Make sure you start with things like cheese or chicken wieners, or whatever your dog truly enjoys. As they get more excited to receive food, you can use lower value items.) After the walk, you can continue to dole out his/her supper in trade, or at least give the rest of the meal in a Buster Cube, or a Kong to get some mental exercise.

      When at home relaxing, give the dog a treat for sitting to wait to be invited up for a snuggle, offer treats (or kibble, they can earn all their meals this way) for anytime your dog comes to you when you call them in the house.

      I have found that the more you give the dog opportunities to earn his/her food, the more exciting the food becomes. Hope this helps.

      Colette – adopted mom of “Peanut”, the dog who would not be touched, eat dog food or play with anything….he is now the easiest dog to train as he loves trading behaviours for food, or interactive time with me (he is also starting to have lots of fun with tug toys and small balls.)


  5. Christine says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 2:48pm

    Good question Christine above as I too have the same question! If I call one the entire pack seems to come back with the one that had the name call leading the way roaring back to the momma.

    Is this just chase happening or are they responding just off any response as a return to me. Curious what others see.


  6. lynne brubaker says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 2:17pm

    Have you slept yet?
    Thank you for this reminder, and for your passion.


  7. Pat says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 1:20pm

    This is the premise of the training I did in Schutzhund tracking. I had a trainer that thought like you do and taught us to allow our dogs to fail and work until they figured it out. Less help and more onus on the dog. Our dogs who trained this way were awesome trackers – hit a tough spot and kept on working. Dogs who were never allowed to fail tended to give up and overstress at those times.
    And the failures were also planned. So I do this in most of my training just have not been able to apply it to recalls fully.


  8. Beth says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 11:46am

    Thanks Susan,
    This just reminds me that no matter how old or young a dog is you must ALWAYS have a PLAN! I think we kinda of slack on our older dogs and focus on the young ones….sigh. Thanks for the refresher talk and lets get planning!


  9. Sharon Normandin says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 10:26am

    Really reveals to me my own flaws as a trainer. Thank you, Susan!


  10. Christine says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 10:19am

    In your article about recalls you talk about using a word and not their name (especially at first). If you have more than 1 dog, do you use the same word for them both? If they are both out running and I want to recall one of them, shouldn’t I have a seperate “come” word for each dog?


  11. Judith Batchelor says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 9:38am

    Very timely post for me- thank you Susan!


  12. michael gooch says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 9:19am

    When we transform ourselves from doing things based on others perceptions, into doing things to improve ourselves and our habitat….we expand our comfort zones which frees our spirit, strengthens our self-confidence, and greatly opens up our true inner potential, of inner beauty…that only WE can truly love and appreciate.


  13. Wishy says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 9:06am

    So glad you wrote about this, Susan! So often we agility folks see our dogs stress in a trial situation or do things in a trial they’d “never do at home.” And these planned failures are a huge key to overcoming that “he never does this at home” issue!

    Great post!


  14. Cassie Levy says:
    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 8:24am

    This is such an important part of training. This is becoming VERY evident to me lately with my two young dogs. My older girl has a very strong mind and handles stress by working harder and “embracing the challenge”, thus “lack of preparation” has never phased her. I’m learning with my younger two that there is a very fine line between not letting them rehearse something wrong and allowing them to experience failure. I have set up my younger dogs to always be successful and thus “learn it correctly” and am now realizing that I am the source of a lot of my male dog’s stress. 🙁 I never taught him how to fail, unfortunately his “shut down” is to run away and look for a reason to get put away (he will pee on equipment or run to another dog because that wins you a trip to the crate – which is what he wants) Unfortunately for both of us, I think that for me, having him be happy and successful has been very rewarding for ME so I often step in to “help him” without even really being aware of it. I had an absolutely awesome “a-ha moment” last night with my little girl and now we are on a mission to retrain ME so I don’t continue to make the same kind-hearted, but detrimental mistakes!

    And thank you Susan, your passion for training continues to be inspiring and all of this is coming at a very good time for me right now!


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