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Lessons in Frustration, Recovery and NRMs

Posted on 03/04/11 14 Comments

Following up on my last post on NRMs I mentioned  that the only place I really use one in my training is when the lack of information will create an expectancy of reinforcement for my dog. I mentioned the teaching of weave poles as one place that a NRM is critically important. The other place is on go-outs (or send aways) in obedience. In both of these examples if you allow the dog to get to the final destination (the end of the poles or the end of your go out) the dog will be reinforced both by the act of running and the history of past reinforcements for the same job.

When I give my NRM to my dogs their ears do not pin back and their attitude does not deflate — it is not relationship altering. To my dogs a NRM means “you are very close to earning a reinforcement, try something different.”

Why do some dogs melt when their owners try to use a NRM? The reason, I believe, is the history in the training. How much has that dog being allowed to fail? Is there a history of the dog being helped by the trainer when it struggles?

A dog’s response to failure is entirely learned. Dogs that shut down are taught to shut down. It is the history of what happens after the shut down that rewards the dog for the act of giving up. For most dogs that have failed their owners will immediately make the next repetition easier so the dog get it right.  I certainly don’t have a big problem with that early on, perhaps once or twice but let me tell you it is not something that I prescribe to myself.

I teach my puppies that frustration is a normal part of learning and not to be discouraged by it but rather be excited because you have eliminated another incorrect response so your reward is now that much closer!  Check out the lessons 4 1/2 week old Swagger is already learning!


Now I do end up with other NRMs that sometimes I am not even conscious of for poor “manners” type behaviours. Those are always things I blurt out, usually with a chuckle when my dogs are being naughty  . . . choosing to get on the couch, stealing a toy without being invited (they are usually something like “oh my” or “I don’t think so” or else similar). However I do not use any such thing to “train” a formal skill.

For myself I follow these guidelines when using a NRM:

1. Never to be used during the “value building” stage of any behaviour. What I mean by that is that I will not use a NRM during the initial shaping of any behaviour.  The behaviours I described above would be in the “value testing” stage.

During any shaping session I minimize errors through strategic planning and setting the stage with clever environmental manipulation in order to set the dog up to offer what I want. The lack of reinforcement is the only feedback the dog gets from me during a shaping session.

2.If a NRM is going to be used (during value testing) the massive amount of reinforcement that has been banked during the value building stage prevents any  of my dogs from considering shutting down and leaving work.

3. As I said previously, only use a NRM if without one the dog will be receiving inappropriate reinforcement for an undesired response.

These are not 3 separate entities. All three of these guidelines are in place if I use a NRM.

But again, I think the stage is set for my own dogs long before that with the lessons they learn about failing (as outlined in these two previous blog posts; 1. Planning to Fail and 2. Planning to Fail is the Path to Success ).

The lessons of working through frustration and disappointment start very young for my dogs and carry through all that we do together.

Today I am grateful for a clean house (that I didn’t have to clean . . . it doesn’t get any better than THAT!).


  1. Andreja says:
    Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 10:22am

    Wow, playing with the pup was really fun to watch! It made me realize how I got my current picky player, too… I have videos from when he was a pup and I tried to keep him occupied by playing with whatever he wanted to play with. I only started teaching him to play with a toy of MY choice when he was 6 months old or so. And I thought it was his fault that he was so picky 🙂


  2. Clyde Thatcher says:
    Friday, March 11, 2011 at 8:05pm

    You always write something which has me thinking for days about the topic. I can’t help but say thanks for this one.

    You wrote: A dog’s response to failure is entirely learned.

    As with most everything you write I have dwelled on this for days. This is so enlightening. Something I haven’t thought about but have needed to. I have been one who would back a step or two in my criteria and work back to the tuff spot to see where it goes the second or third time. If it didn’t work then I would rewrite my criteria. I can see why it is at times my dog looks straight to me and waits when the going gets a little harder.

    This will change my training forever as I think about my dog’s approach to the difficulties he/ she faces each day when we train and also through lives little road bumps thrown there way. I have an 8 week old pup who will be better of now that her owner is getting his tools refined. Thank you so very much for this piece of the training puzzle.


  3. Staci says:
    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 2:02pm

    Can this still be done with an older puppy?? Mine is 8 months and is not a super tugger. He will tug, but lets go easily and often. I would love to teach him to grab and hold on to the tug, but is he too old??


  4. Angela Maharajh says:
    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 5:13pm

    ditto on keys to training and maintaining tug…I’m sure you could sell a lot of those videos 🙂 I have a pup now and want to make sure he likes tugging…he does like it, but it’s hard to take it to more distracting areas. Also with a pup, the teething helps them want to tug, but their teeth might hurt a bit when they are getting loose… So many things to consider. I’ve told my husband to use the tug more as a reward/game…he’s trying to listen to me lol! I know how difficult it is to get an older dog to tug, and the tuggit treat game and all that, those are tools to help, but tugging is a tough one for older dogs and those of us who don’t have your skill to train. Sorry for the long post – thanks for all you do, today I’m grateful for teachers who share so much.


  5. Clyde says:
    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 4:23pm

    In the obedience go out example, where would you use the NRM? I’m thinking if the dog doesn’t run straight away from you perhaps? So you want to stop the reinforcement of not running straight so you say oops if they veer off?

    PS Glad to hear you are having an obedience seminar.


  6. Jenny Yasi says:
    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 9:29am

    . The shut down behavior is interesting. When I got my last puppy, 8 week old Tigerlily, she was very small for her breed, quite shy and sad, and she was VERY reactive of other dogs. At first, she just quivered and literally screamed, a high pitched scream, and she’d climb up on my shoulder. This happened when I was bringing her home and she saw a dog fifty feet away. As I worked at counter conditioning her response to other dogs she got more confident, and she learned that barking at other dogs would send them flying, so we had to work through that phase. She also saw in dog classes that her movement would stimulate unwanted dog attention, and so she went through a whole “I can’t tug or eat or move fast if other dogs are watching me” phase. I used to bring her to just hang out in her crate at agility classes, because she would go and just shut off completely and then she’d go to sleep. At six years old, she is MUCH more confident, tugs and eats and plays and no more shutting down — well, a little bit at agility trials, where she is good for one run and then depleted. Being around strange dogs just exhausts her. But also, other dogs have shown her that when she holds still they won’t pester her so much. Now, for example, in group play, if some pushy playful puppy starts climbing all over her, she will tend to stand on her head (head down on the floor completely, butt up in the air) and she just “freezes” in that position while a dog chews on her, grows bored, and then leaves her alone.


  7. Billie says:
    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 11:07pm

    Thanks for the video and great comments – it really is invaluable. How would you go about teaching a 4 year old dog to tug? I have two 4 year old dogs and since your seminar last year I’ve really worked on their tugging. My boy dog (who was always the better tugger) is doing really well and will choose to play tug with me over food rewards (his previous #1 value reinforcement). My girl dog is not doing as well. I can get a little bit out of her but it is hard work and I’m conscious of keeping it short so that she is left wanting more. She has a history of playing tug (vigorously) with the boy dog (before I knew better) and I’ve restricted their access to things they can tug on together but can’t seem to transfer the value of the game to me. You mentioned in the seminar you would be reluctant to reward tugging with food (her absolute #1 value reward), so I’ve tried not to do this. You also said at the seminar that you were thinking of doing some education on how to get a dog to tug as you had lots of strategies. I’d be signing up for that in a flash! 🙂


    • Trudie says:
      Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 11:54am

      MMmm I see me and my 5 yr old in your comment! (Bo prefers getting to chase a tennis ball alone to food or tugging. He is playful and can be a fierce tugger but not around any distraction and not as reward in training. He wasn’t having any food in a Tug-it, either.) My first plan to get myself started: was shaping in short sessions with food treats à la Hélix Fairweather in her CleanRun article, using a cotton garden glove. Good. This got me thinking and researching as much as possible on trying out many different sorts of possible tug toys, sort of like making your list of highest value treats! Out of many, many trials I discovered something “clicked” with the snugga wubba (baby-size) toy like Susan uses, but the best — who would have thunk it? was a foot-long and 3 inch wide piece of real rabbit fur. I learned alot through searching articles and recent dvds, all about the art of tugging — well worth it because there was a huge amount of information I didn’t know I didn’t know! Transforming my tug toy adding a covered heavy duty bungee elastic and handle for me made it perfect– Bo seems to love the give and take! (Other fun ideas include the toy on the end of a flexible horse whip, making it jump like prey.) At this time, I was doing the brilliant recallers online course and discovered how a handler has to make some effort to run! and give your dog the fun of chasing you if he likes that, we learned to play tug games “3-2-1” “Drop the tug and run”
      As far as tugging around distractions I get exstatic with admiration if we tug together, for example outside an agility ring, wow!! look at that everyone!!!
      This is high maintenance, one needs patience and motivation to keep at it!
      I’d love a course on this.


    • Mary M says:
      Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 9:46pm

      After the first seminar I attended of Susan’s I was in awe by the power of believing in myself and my ability to motivate my dog. My three year old had not really enjoyed tugging, from Susan’s seminar I quickly knew I had allowed his choice moments to be I don’t wanna I don’t hafta to move me to lowing my criteria, when I realized the mistakes I had made in his foundation I had him tugging with me in a day and within 5 days he would tug on a piece of string (or whatever I could find) in the face of treats on the floor (his highest reward back then).

      I have to say it was all about my awareness of what I was rewarding and how I was changing my criteria to allow for lesser behaviors from him. He was not a very driven dog back then (ummm cause I rewarded lower drive!) and now I have a really hard working boy who can tug anything I present, tugging has also become his highest value!

      So for me it really was about my own state of mind (i.e. my dog won’t tug with food around, he doesn’t like to tug, etc.) when I lost those thoughts and created different ones to motivate both him and I we quickly built on the results, creating a dog who tries very hard for me all the time and only gets more driven to get something right even after multiple tries.

      Really a state of mind thing for the person IMO!

      Susan’s video on this post illistrates this very well…..and I have to say I am failing in love with Swagger, hope to meet him at the next SY camp I can attend!


  8. alison says:
    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 9:25pm

    Fantastic post as usual… i really think puppies can learn to fail, and their frustration levels tested from birth… i have a litter of puppies here(under a week old) and usually once a day i will make them work to get to the milk bar :)… by placing them away from the dam and putting obstacles in the way of getting back to the ultimate prize… i then like to observe how they cope… do they give up or just keep powering through…


  9. denise says:
    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:49pm

    WOW, you have a 4 1/2 week old puppy tugging better than I can get my adult dogs to tug….. I have so much to learn!!


  10. Renee says:
    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:02pm

    WOW! Susan, thank you so much for really studying the tiny little things that make a good dog trainer (things that we don’t even know we are doing) and presenting them! If anyone wants to learn, they need to be watching!

    I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! LOVE what you write about shutting down, and failing, and recovering!!!!

    Thank you! I hope people are reading and paying ATTENTION!!!!!

    Renee King


    • Susan says:
      Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 9:50am

      @Renee, thanks! It is always awesome when someone with your level success takes the time to acknowledge a peer.


      • Renee says:
        Monday, March 7, 2011 at 11:33am

        Thanks Susan! All weekend at the trial I was at, I kept talking about this GREAT post and GREAT video! People and students always want to know how to do things….well, here it is! 🙂 They just need to watch. I have watched the video several times and see something new each time. Like the way you DON’T switch to the easy toy when Feature is barking…how you make sure to end when Swagger is engaged and having fun, etc.

        Like I said before, really studying and figuring out some things that many of us do “naturally” and outlining them for others is a GREAT gift of yours, and I am grateful for that!

        Regarding NRM, I really still LOVE that part of this post! Your criteria is well laid out and so important! Makes me think, and I enjoy that! I was thinking about that all weekend too. 🙂 And how in herding, herding folks seem to use NRM’s a LOT….and I have always wondered about it. My dog is fine with it (I am pretty good at teaching to fail and recover) but I did wonder about it.
        Now I really think about why….because the sheep are always rewarding to the dogs!

        Anyway, sorry for long reply, but again….GREAT posts on this topic! I hope that dog trainers are PAYING ATTENTION and reading! 😉

        Hope to see ya soon!
        Renee King

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