The Art Of Rewarding Mistakes

The Art Of Rewarding Mistakes

Yes, that’s right.  Today, we will be discussing how to give your dog treats for doing something wrong in training.

(WHAT??)

If the title of this week’s blog post makes you scratch your head a bit, don’t worry – you’re not alone!

After all, mistakes are part of dog training, and we all know how to handle them… right?  Reward the dog for the behavior you want, and withhold the reward (or apply a correction, if you use corrections in your training) when the dog does the wrong thing.  This makes intuitive sense to us – and indeed, this basic approach works quite well in many cases.

What I want to talk about today, however, are those cases where it doesn’t.

It might surprise you to learn that there are certain situations in training where it can be extremely useful to reward your dog for the “wrong” behavior.  I know, I know… blasphemy, right??  If we reward our dogs for making mistakes, how on earth will they ever learn what they’re supposed to do?

This is a very valid question – so if you’re feeling skeptical, I don’t blame you!  To explain, let’s look at a few specific scenarios where this strategy can be helpful.

Teaching a complex and difficult behavior, especially with multiple repetitions

In training, some of the things we ask our dogs to do are very challenging at first – these tasks require a great deal of concentration from the dog to execute correctly, and the learning process isn’t always smooth and easy.  When training a skill like this, the dog’s enthusiasm and willingness to stay in the game are much more important than whether or not any particular attempt is 100% correct.

To phrase that another way: I want to keep the dog happy, more than I want her to be right.  Which feels very strange at first, doesn’t it?  But as long as she’s engaged and making an effort, “getting it right” will come.  If she gets frustrated and gives up, you won’t make any progress at all.

A terrific example of this type of skill is weave pole training in agility.  If you’re not familiar with the sport, picture a line of 12 poles stuck in the ground, spaced two feet apart.  The dog has to size up the poles as she races towards them in the middle of an agility course, enter them correctly (with the first pole on her left), and zig-zag between them all the way to the end as quickly as possible without any assistance from the handler.

In short – this is the very definition of a complex and difficult behavior.  It requires a tremendous amount of focus from the dog, as well as good body control, flexibility, and drive.  Getting fast, reliable weave poles is arguably the most challenging part of agility training for many dogs, with good reason!

When we teach this skill in our classes, we use a set of offset poles that can be adjusted in tiny increments, gradually tightening them into a straight line over several weeks of practice.  This sets the dog up for easy success at first, as they learn to run back and forth down the line of poles without needing to “weave” at all.

But as we begin to tighten the poles, the task becomes more difficult – and as a result, we start to see some errors.  The dog may miss the first or last pole, or pop out in the middle without completing the series.  This happens because we are asking her to think harder and do more with her body, and is a normal part of the learning process.

So how do we handle these errors?

One option is to simply withhold the reward and send the dog back through the poles to try again.  This is the “traditional” way to handle a mistake, and it works very well for some dogs.  My blue merle boy Gatsby, for example, did very well with this method.  He’s an engaged and thoughtful worker who doesn’t get frustrated or give up easily – and during his weave pole training, he was perfectly happy to turn around and try again if I did not reward an incorrect attempt, with no loss of concentration or interest in the task.

However… my youngest dog, Clint, is currently in the process of learning his weave poles and requires a very different approach.  For him, failing to get his reward is quite stressful!  If he misses a pole and I withhold the treat, he becomes increasingly frantic and upset, and each subsequent attempt gets worse until he stops and stares at me, barking in frustration.  Once that happens, he isn’t learning anything at all – except that weave poles are stressful and difficult, which is definitely not the attitude we want for competition!

So for a dog like Clint, I do something that may seem very counterintuitive – I reward every single attempt at the weaves.  Even if he misses his entry, or pops out early, or skips a pole in the middle.  Correct attempts will earn some extra praise and enthusiasm from me, which he does value, or even a jackpot for a particularly brilliant performance; but he will get a piece of cheese every single time for trying.  No exceptions.

The key to making this work is keeping the difficulty level of the exercise manageable for the dog.  With weave poles, if I’m getting too many errors (more than one out of every four or five attempts), I need to back up and make things easier – ideally, the dog should be getting it right at least 80% of the time.  So if this isn’t happening, I need to change my set-up!  But with an 80% success rate, the dog will learn the behavior just fine even if you’re rewarding for the mistakes as well as the flawless runs – it’s a matter of repetition and muscle memory.

As a deliberate strategy to influence the dog’s choice next time

For this scenario, imagine that you’re working with your dog in class on some kind of off-leash exercise – heeling past distractions, for example, or running an agility course.  Your dog starts off well, but then becomes distracted by an interesting smell on the floor, or runs off to say hello to another dog or handler on the sidelines.  You try calling her back, but she pays no attention.

What do you do?

One choice that I see frequently is to march sternly over to the dog, grab her by the collar, and verbally scold her for running off.  This “feels” like the right thing to do, and it’s certainly reinforcing for the handler – after all, this darned dog has just embarrassed you in front of your classmates by being naughty.  You’re frustrated and annoyed.  She has to learn that she can’t ignore you when she’s supposed to be working… right?

Every dog and training situation is different, and I am certainly not advocating a “one size fits all” approach to any given scenario.  But I will say that in most cases, this is not how I would suggest handling a dog who becomes distracted or loses focus during training.  It may be satisfying at the time to give the dog a piece of your mind, but think about it from her perspective – does this increase her enthusiasm for the task at hand, or do anything to convince her that working with you is more rewarding than sniffing an interesting pee spot or greeting a buddy?

Probably not.  If anything, your scolding has increased her stress level and also taught her that doing stuff with you in training class is a bit of a drag.

Instead, a better option might be to approach her with a smile while she’s sniffing or attempting to say hello to a friend, and playfully goose her or make a funny noise to get her attention – make it fun and light-hearted.  “Hey, silly girl!  There you are!  Ready to get back to work?”  Show her your treats, and feed her all the way back to where you started; or, clap your hands and run with her if she enjoys this.  I use this strategy frequently in my training classes, and with my own dogs when needed – most dogs respond very well, and will re-engage with more enthusiasm on the next attempt.

So why does it work?  After all, haven’t you just rewarded your dog with praise, treats, and play for running off and ignoring you?

Well… yes and no.  One could certainly argue this, but what really matters is the effect it has on your dog’s performance next time.  And a dog who finds you engaging and fun to work with will always perform better than a dog who has just been scolded and dragged away from more interesting doggy pursuits – especially when the leash is off!

It’s important to note that if your dog is really struggling with the exercise, you shouldn’t rely solely on this method to carry you through – it’s not helpful to continue over-facing her to the point that she decides to opt out and run off over and over again, no matter how much you jolly her up in between.  Instead, once you’ve got her attention back for the next attempt, make it shorter or easier to help ensure success.  Maybe only a few steps of heeling, or a partial sequence in agility.  Or move your distractions further away.  Then reward her for getting it right, and give her a break 🙂

When the “mistake” is due to handler error

This is a big one – and probably the most difficult scenario to recognize!  I suspect that most of us are somewhat oblivious to our own mistakes and poor communication when it comes to dog training – although we certainly get better with practice, even the most experienced handlers give confusing or contradictory cues from time to time.  Remember that your dog doesn’t speak English, so she relies on your body language along with trained signals or verbal cues to try and figure out what you want her to do.

To go back to the sport of agility, it’s extraordinarily common for handlers to mistakenly send their dogs over the wrong obstacle – anyone who has ever taken an agility class or entered a trial knows this feeling all too well!  You’re running at full speed with your dog beside you, concentrating hard on remembering the course and getting where you need to go.  You give a cue for the tire jump directly in your path, but your dog inexplicably veers to the side and takes the A-frame instead.

So what just happened?

If you’re like most of us, especially early on in your agility career, your first impulse is to stop and call your dog back – often with an exasperated sigh, and certainly with no praise or treats.  After all, she made a mistake and you need to correct it… or did she?  In fact, in the vast majority of “off-course” mistakes like this, video review of the run will clearly show that the error was yours.  You may have said “tire!” and pointed at it with your hand, but the rest of your body language (shoulders, feet, direction of motion, etc.) was screaming “take the A-frame!”

And so she did.

In this instance, withholding the reward is incredibly unfair – why should she be corrected for your mistake?  This is quite confusing and demoralizing for the dog, and very damaging to your training in the long run.  Instead, if my dog goes off-course in practice, I just continue running and reward after the “wrong” obstacle as if there was no mistake at all.  You can always go back and attempt the sequence again.  Most of the time, once you fix your wayward feet and shoulders, she’ll sail through the tire with no confusion.

Ultimately, it’s about giving your dog the benefit of the doubt.  She’s doing her best, trying to learn the rules of a game that she doesn’t understand and didn’t ask to play – this is true for agility, but also for other sports like rally or competitive obedience, and even for basic manners training with pet dogs.  This means that we owe it to our dogs to communicate clearly, keep them engaged, and make sure they’re having fun.

So when in doubt – bite the bullet, swallow your pride, and REWARD YOUR DOG.  It gets easier with time, I promise! 🙂

8 thoughts on “The Art Of Rewarding Mistakes

  1. Thank you for this. I am training my second LGD and this is so true of these smart independent thinkers. I have to recognize when my message isn’t clear or is confusing and not put it on her and reward her putting up with my silliness and restart or revisit later

    1. Yes! I find that this is especially true for dogs who tend to be more independent – if you don’t communicate clearly and make training rewarding for them, they will simply opt out. They force us to be better trainers, and for that reason are some of my favorite dogs to work with 😉

  2. Very cool article with a lot of food for thought. When my little girl chirps learning something new, I know it to be a sign of frustration. It is a sign that maybe we are moving too fast. Until now, I simply asked her for something that she is already proficient at and then reward her. Now, I am thinking that we will break into a game of tug (her reward) to change her mental state and let her kind of blow off the pressure to relax both of us.

    1. You could definitely give that a try. A “free” cookie or game of tug when training becomes a bit frustrating can be very helpful, in my experience.

      Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

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