We ALL Make Mistakes

We humans have an uncanny ability to notice what we don’t like. Just look at all the nasty comments posted online, or listen to people’s conversations. Sometimes, it seems that all we ever do is complain about the dumb things other people did or said. We jump on people for every mistake they make. We do it to our dogs, too. We always notice when they are barking at the deer in the yard or they jump onto the sofa, uninvited. We yell, criticize, complain, even punish.


Old-school training methods emphasize punishment. Rub your puppy’s nose in it if he pees in the house. Smack your dog with a rolled-up newspaper. Put him in a crate for a time-out if he is mouthy. Knee him in the chest for jumping up to greet you. Shock him for barking or for crossing some invisible line that is supposed to separate “his” territory from the rest of the world.

As I wrote in Reward or Punishment?, we all can learn from negative consequences that a particular behavior was not a good choice. Yes, a dog can learn what not to do through punitive “training” methods. But that information doesn’t often help him figure out what would be a better or the correct choice of action. There might be a lot of other options, and most of them might be equally wrong. Punishing a dog who hasn’t been taught what the right behavior is, is unfair. And, even when we know what is wanted of us, we all make mistakes.

Instead of jumping on every mistake, positive training focuses on eliciting or teaching behaviors that we want the dog to engage in — and rewarding them.

Some people use targeting or a lure to elicit a behavior. This could be as simple as patting your leg to encourage a puppy to come to you or having the dog follow a treat held above his nose to get him to sit or lie down.

Some use shaping, which is waiting for the dog to do something that might barely resemble the behavior you want, and rewarding that, then slowly raising the bar until you get the desired behavior. An example is teaching your dog to turn left. You might first reward a tiny glance to the left. Then a longer glance. A slight head turn. A half-turn of the head. A full head turn. Etc. Until the dog turns left.

What is most important about these teaching techniques is that if the dog guesses wrong, turning his head to the right, say, rather than the left, or backing up instead of sitting — you don’t do anything. No scolding or yelling, no “correction” or punishment. You simply change position and try again.

If the worst consequence to getting it wrong is that the puppy doesn’t get the treat — but he immediately gets to try again, making mistakes is safe. He’ll soon learn that trying different ways to do something until he gets it right is not only safe but it’s fun. That will make him more likely to guess again than if the consequence of an incorrect guess is painful or unpleasant. He’ll also be more willing to try new things — which teaches him to think and problem solve. Don’t you want a thinking dog?

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