Have you ever made a mistake when training your dog? It’s safe to say we all have. Last week we looked at having a Plan B when our dog does something unexpected, so in fairness to our dogs, this post covers when our dogs might need a Plan B for us!
Our dog’s response to our errors will range from shutting down to stressing up, but it does not need to be that way. Something I have been using and advocating for more years than I can remember is what I call “screw up cookies”.
Screw Up Cookies
A “screw up cookie” is for when we make a mistake. As soon as we make the mistake, we ask our dog for a simple behaviour and reward that behaviour. Asking for a simple behaviour ensures we are not rewarding our dog for something that we don’t want. There is a massive difference between ‘purposeful’ and ‘mindless’ reinforcing.
The behaviour to ask the dog for could be a sit, down, or hand touch, and the reward a quick game of tug or a cookie given ‘on the move’ or with a ‘paws up’. It’s a simple behaviour our dog is very clear on, that we can reinforce immediately to keep our dog’s drive and motivation for working with us.
Dog training requires mechanical skills, so we will make errors, and that’s okay. Embracing your mistakes as opportunities for your dog to earn reinforcement with a “screw up cookie” will help maintain your connection with your dog and maintain the joy and enthusiasm for both of you. If one of you in the team is not having fun, then neither will the other one.
We could make mistakes in any part of our dog training, but for dog agility and other dog sports, there are many mechanical skills for us humans to master. Sometimes when we make an error, it might be tempting to go back to the start and repeat the exercise, often over and over until we get it right, and in that time our dog will not be getting any reinforcement and losing confidence from our mistakes. A lack of confidence is the number one reason for either the lack of drive or ‘too much’ drive in many dogs.
We might even forget about our dog while we try and figure out what went wrong. We might sigh, shake our head or otherwise display frustration at ourselves… all of these things are de-motivating for our dogs. If you need thinking time, give your dog a “screw up cookie” and then send him to his bed or crate while you figure it out. That gives him a job to do that he will value and find reinforcing from the foundations that you have built in Crate Games.
Next time you make an error, see it as an opportunity to reinforce your dog!
If you are unsure if you made a mistake, give your dog the benefit of the doubt. If you are learning a skill that is new for you, practice without your dog at first. Bring your dog into the training session when you are comfortable with where you need to be and what you are doing. Embrace videoing your training sessions so you can review your mechanics.
Keeping and building drive is important for all dogs. This is a vital element of good dog training even if your dog is over the top. Some dogs will stress ‘low’ and others ‘high’. Your skills as a dog trainer will help your dog no matter where he is on the drive spectrum. Using “screw up cookies” should become part of your training. Live by the rule “a mistake is a chance to reward that which is correct”.
Had you heard of “screw up cookies”? I know that this silly name I made up has been in the mainstream for a long time, and that many of you are using “screw up cookies” with great benefit to your dog training. Is this a new concept for you? Let me know in the comments.
Today I am grateful for everyone who is striving to maintain their dog’s joy in daily life, training and in competition sports.