How to avoid top 10 mistakes with your dog

I did a seminar not long ago on the top 10 mistakes that I see handlers accidentally make with their dogs - and thought it might be a good checklist to put out.

I have broken these up into 3 categories: training, handling, and thinking with a short description of why this mistake made it onto the list.

I have also included what you can do instead to turn a potential mistake into a strength.

click here for a pdf version


1. Teaching dog that they HAVE TO do something.

Trying to train a dog that they have to do something is like trying to train a wave that it has to do something. If your dog does not feel like stopping, nailing the weave entry, staying, adding a stride, shifting their weight to jump, turning tight - whatever - there isn’t a whole lot you are going to be able to do about it.

You can get louder, repeat yourself 3 times, be more insistent or stern, carry them out of the ring, try to make them sorry they failed you, or try any number of other methods to try to make them do what you want - but off leash at 7 yards per second, if they don’t make it happen themselves, you can’t do it for them. And for the most part all this other stuff is just going to put you at odds with your dog.

Instead, try to train your dog to WANT TO do something. If you want them to stay at a start line, then play a game that goes something like this: “IF you choose to sit, I will lead out and if you are still where I left you, then I have to release you to agility”. I do not ask for a sit. I do not ask for a stay. I am not held hostage by wanting to do agility so much that I will bribe or force or coerce my dog into doing both. No sit, then no lead out. No stay, then no release. You really have to be ok with whatever choice the dog makes, but when it is the dog’s idea in the first place, you don’t have to make them do it. Assuming they like agility, you may be surprised at how quickly, and how strong, the desire to stay becomes. Check out the foundation games for ideas of how to use play in training particularly.

2. Skipping pieces of the puzzle

In a previous article I described all the puzzle pieces that go into assembling a really great agility behavior. There are so many reasons why some of the pieces get skipped: lack of time, lack of space, litter mates who are already competing, thinking you have done them already etc. This is something of a mistake in and of itself, but the reason it makes it onto the top 10 is that the bigger mistake is not knowing or not owning that pieces have been left out of the puzzle and the dog is at best only partially clear about what they are supposed to do.

Instead, just be mindful of the complexity of what your dog is doing, appreciative of their effort, and work to fill in the missing pieces, or else accepting that there will just be holes. Check out the training overview and specific training topics to get a better picture of how to go about working all the pieces of the puzzle.

3. Fear of rewarding something you don’t like

This is a tough one to describe but it causes all kinds of fairly persistent problems that get tough to work through. Here is a typical scenario: you are training weave poles. in order to reward your dog for driving out of the poles, you have to release your reward before they are done weaving, say at pole 10, or if you are for behind them, maybe even much earlier. Since you are concerned that your toy or treat might encourage the dog to pop out early, you wait until they clear the last pole to reward. Of course as soon as the dog is done weaving, they glance at you to see what comes next and they think that looking at you is what made you release the reward. Do that enough and your dog starts to anticipate checking in with you as they near the end of the poles - and popping out is soon to follow, exactly what you are hoping to avoid.

Instead, take advantage of your foundation skills:

  • If you can send your dog to a stationary toy or target this will let you build the expectation of where the reward will show up. Once the dog is driving where you want them to go assuming the reward will be there, then you can begin to throw it without them looking back over their shoulder for you.

  • If you can call your dog off a toy or treat, then you don’t need to be concerned that they might get a reward if they make a last instant boo boo.

  • If you have taught the dog how to learn and try things, then you don’t need to worry if you reward something you don’t love now and then - just don’t do it a whole bunch of times.

Whatever you have to do, do it - even if you have to recruit a friend to help or use training aides to give you confidence.


4. Must get dog to do obstacle

This is mostly a novice handler boo boo, but it can become a habit that persists way beyond any useful purpose. One scenario goes like this: you send your dog to do a tunnel and they don’t go. So you keep pushing, repeating yourself, gesturing, bending over, attempting, backing up, flinging, getting louder etc. etc. etc. Sometimes handlers get so desperate they actually try to bowl their dog in, or resort to throwing a treat into the tunnel to get the dog in there.

Instead, support the path to the obstacle you want and give your dog permission to get it. That’s it. They either will or they won’t. Either way, you got the answer to your question. “can you go get that thing?” Given that you would probably like to have a reliable tunnel behavior and not have to do any of these things in the future - you will be far happier letting this tunnel go and not risk training your dog that you become a crazy person around tunnels.

5. Must get through sequence

This is a similar mistake where the handler prioritizes getting through the sequence over the training opportunity that the sequence provides. There are two typical scenarios.

a) The team is practicing some sequence and the dog takes an extra jump. Without getting organized, the handler attempts to get the dog over the next obstacle in order to go on. But now what? The approach to the next sequence is totally different than it would have been (maybe even unsafe), the speed is different, the relative position of you and the dog is different, things are very likely to go awry again.

b) The team is practicing some sequence and the dog takes an extra jump. The handler decides to work through it and goes back to obstacle 1, even if the error occurred at number 13. It is as if the training only counts if the sequence is done beginning to end.

Instead of thinking you must get through any particular sequence, think of your goal as getting through all sequences- therefore your priority is to learn from the sequence not just hammer it out. If something goes awry, you have your answer already. If you can go on in an elegant and efficient way - then go on. You can come back and work through the boo boo once you have given it some thought, broken it down, simplified the challenge, or whatever else needs to be done so you don’t run into the boo boo again in the future. If you want to work on the error - then stop, reward your dog and get organized to work on it. (see the next mistake).

6. Must fix it right away

This mistake can create some truly weird energy on course. The scenario goes something like this: the dog misses the weave entry and starts weaving. The handler quickly pulls them out of the poles, circles them around and tries to get them into a correct entry - except that the approach is awkward, the dog isn’t focused on the poles, the handler is wildly hurrying them “weave, Weave, WEAVE” etc. It is as if the handler feels that if they don’t fix the entry within 2 seconds of the original mistake, the training opportunity is lost forever. Unfortunately, this weird energy often creates more problems. Having a dog back into their 2o2o after they have over run it is another typical scenario.

Instead, relax a bit, there is no time limit on fixing errors - in fact you could be working on them the rest of your dog’s career if you aren’t careful. Stop, reward your dog - or if you hate what they just did, you can use your "hey" command (see foundation) or ask them to do something that is rewardable then reward that. Get ahold of them - by the collar. And think.

Figure out what needs fixing first before you do anything. Was it a strategy error? An execution error? A training error? Don’t fix a training issue with a change in strategy. Actually don’t fix the wrong thing at all. Just stop. Get your thoughts together and then continue with your training. If you don't know what happened, then don’t fix anything - put your dog away and think what exercises will help you get clarity on what went awry - then go do those things.

7. Cheerleading

This is one of those really sneaky mistakes. The scenario is something like this: the dog is lagging through the course, maybe not putting in as much effort as you would like. So in an effort to encourage them, you start cheerleading them along :”come on, you can do it, right here, lets go ….” There are a few potential problems with this:

a) first, your motivation for vocalizing is probably not “wow- look at you go!” it is probably more like “come on - you can do better” - this is actually nagging and even I can hear the difference.

b) if your dog interprets your energy as a positive, then they are being continuously rewarded for something you actually don’t like. If your dog interprets your energy as a negative, it is probably compounding whatever is going wrong that is causing them to be less animated than they could be - kind of like kicking someone when they are already down.

c) while you are putting your energy into cheerleading, you may not be focused on giving the dog the information that they really need - like good cues.

Instead, move. Find ways to keep your energy up on course. Take a longer path. Notice your dog doing something better than average and authentically praise that. Have fun. Use your invitation to play body language and voice. You don’t have to call each obstacle - you could say “ready, steady, go” instead. Or just be quiet and practice being a perfect handler.


8. But he KNOWS how to do this

This again is related to making sure all of the puzzle pieces are assembled so your dog really does know how to do this - whatever this is. It can be super frustrating to feel like your dog is well prepared to do something and it doesn’t happen. But it didn’t happen. The more time you spend thinking - but he knows how to do this - just delays what you really need to do.

Instead, try to learn from what happened. Is there a pattern you can identify? A training hole? A distraction? A scenario? or is it just a mistake. An anomaly, something to just laugh off. If you can learn from it, then you can begin to work through it. If you have no idea, then you just do experiments to see if you can replicate it or ask your friends to watch, or video your training sessions for a while, or go back to your foundation and make sure it is solid. In other words, spend as little time as possible with this thought and move on.

9. He’s blowing me off

This is another tough thought process to shake sometimes. There is nothing like being in the middle of a training session, with toys, treats, having the best time ever and your dog chooses to do something else. So tempting to think “ack, he’s just blowing me off”. I have mixed feelings about this phrasing just because it sounds so deliberate and calculating as if the dog is purposely giving you the paw. Well the harsh truth is that your dog is blowing you off, in the sense that given a choice what to do, they aren’t choosing you.

But like, the previous thought process the more time you spend in this thinking, the more damage you are doing to your training - and maybe relationship. And certainly you aren’t working toward never having that feeling again. And if you try to engage your dog while you are thinking this, I can pretty much guarantee that your dog isn’t going to get more motivated to work with you.

Instead, try to figure out what is going on. Is this a learned behavior - something you have accidentally trained or allowed? Is it a stress behavior? Is your dog feeling unwell? Are you trying to reward your dog with something they don’t want? Are they pushing off of your energy/stress/tone/mood? Is there a distraction in the environment you just can’t compete with yet? Are they mentally cooked? There are a lot of possible causes and if you want to work through them, the best thing you can do is rely on your great foundation recall, reward like crazy and put the dog away so you can think. If you have to go somewhere and scream, cry, hit something, or swear your head off - go do that, but don’t try to train until you are back to your confident, optimistic, patient, forgiving, self.

10. My dog deserves a better handler

This thought process, or something like it, plagues quite a few handlers. Separate of the mental model problems this creates, there is a specific boo boo that can cause a lot of direct problems in training and handling and that is when the handler reacts to boo boos they make. This mistake comes in two flavors:

a) “OOPSY!”. This is where the handler feels compelled to mark their mistake with a super happy, fake cocktail voice as if they couldn’t be more thrilled that they made an error. In an effort to keep the training positive, they create a confusing energy change. The problem is that this super animated energy is not consistent with the feedback your dog needs. If that is how happy you are when something goes awry - what do you sound like and act like when things are perfect? What tends to happen is that these handlers don't get animated for good things “a blasé “nice” or “good” or “yes” marks the good stuff and “OOPSY, MOMMY MADE A MISTAKEY WAKEY” marks the poor stuff. I suspect this just teaches your dog that you are a bit strange.

b) “DANG IT”. This is the opposite, where the handler feels compelled to beat themselves up whenever they make a mistake. Of course the dog has no idea what just happened since, for example, only you can read the numbers and know you just sent them off course. All they know is that they followed your body language and you apparently hated it. The insidious problem that this can create is a handler who accidentally creates a dog who “doesn’t like to be wrong”. The unintended consequences are typically that the dog slows down, gets hesitant, checks in, tries to read the handler’s vibe in order to decide what to do etc.

Instead try to think of mistakes as interesting but not noteworthy, for sure not worth commenting on. You will have plenty of time after you put your dog away, to go back and rethink what went well and why, and make a quick note of something unexpected you did. Then you can track back to what the training opportunity is. Can you work on visualization better? Did you skip a step in the walkthrough? Did you leave a handling strategy open ended and change your mind? Do you need to work on your footwork a bit more?

That’s it, the top 10. There are quite a few related articles with more detail and ideas that can help if you kind of recognize any of these and agree they aren’t really working for you.

© 2017 by Andrea Dexter @ Agilityflix