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Mistakes are Great Learning Tools!

Last Friday, the Lomonaco family celebrated three blissful, accident-free weeks in the house. We were very proud of Cuba and the wonderful progress he's made...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Sep 14th 2010


Last Friday, the Lomonaco family celebrated three blissful, accident-free weeks in the house. We were very proud of Cuba and the wonderful progress he’s made with his potty training and rewarded him with a little more freedom around the house – a little less time in his crate or on his tether.

Then the weekend arrived. An admittedly crazy weekend, two four-hour “naps” masquerading as adequate sleep, sandwiched between two twenty-hour workdays. I was exhausted. My brain was fried, and I was concentrating so hard on work, that I paid a little less attention to Cuba than I normally would on a weekend evening.

This business and my inattention, combined with Cuba’s newly earned freedom, spelled potty training disaster. We had two accidents this weekend, both late-night pee accidents near the door. The sound of puppy pee splashing on the hard wood snapped me out of my dazed, mentally overloaded state and into Nature’s Miracle, paper towel toting reality.

Was I mad at Cuba for having two accidents in the house? Nope. Was I upset with myself for slacking on supervision for a few hours? I admit it, just a little. Certainly, this was my mistake and my fault.

One thing I’ve realized as a trainer and more importantly, as a friend to and steward of animals, is that any time an animal makes a “mistake” in any training plan, it is time to step off your teaching podium and accept the rule of student. What is your animal telling you?

I don’t believe that animals EVER refuse to respond to cues for behavior because they are stubborn. I think there’s always something else at play. It could be a number of factors, including one or more of the following:

  • the animal is physically unwell or in pain
  • the animal is stressed or anxious
  • the animal hasn’t been trained to the current level of criteria. Is the environment too distracting? Are you asking for more duration or distance than you’ve trained for in the performance environment? Have you established stimulus control for the behaviors in question?
  • your cue is unclear and confusing – perhaps you always cue with your left hand and yet today, you were carrying groceries in your left hand and cued with your right. You think the cue is the same, the dog thinks it’s something totally different because dogs are very good at discriminating and notoriously poor at generalizing.
  • your rate of reinforcement is too low
  • your reinforcement value is not commensurate with the performance you are requesting

Sometimes we get so caught up in teaching our dogs that we forget to learn from them. We don’t stop and ask, “what is my dog trying to tell me?” nearly often as we should. Mistakes are simply information – your dog is pointing out to you loopholes in the training plan or communication loop between the two of you. Always ask yourself, “what’s different about this?” if your dog fails to respond to a cue which he reliably responds to normally.

Cuba’s potty accidents were valuable information to me. They provided me with valuable feedback on our training progress – Cuba has earned some freedom but not as much as I’d granted him. Cuba can be trusted with more freedom during the day and needs to be crated or very carefully supervised late at night, which is when he had both of the accidents (and, coincidentally, when I do most of my writing). I need to beef up my management protocol and go back to rewarding every correct elimination outside again for a little while.

Cuba wasn’t having accidents because he’s stubborn. He wasn’t having accidents because he’s dominant. Nor could I attribute the accidents to “spite” (he is not angry with me for trying to get some work done). He was having accidents because he is a three month old puppy who had a full bladder and was not carefully enough managed by his admittedly frazzled, overtired “mum.”

I’m not perfect. I know I make mistakes in handling my dogs, we all do. Gosh, some of my biggest mistakes as a handler were made when I first began trying to rehabilitate my spirit Saint, Monte, from his aggression problems – I learned so much from these mistakes that they caused me to seek an entirely new profession and way of interacting with animals of all species! Cuba’s “mistakes” got me back on track by helping me quickly identify flaws and weaknesses in my training plan, allowing me to close up those loopholes and get us back on track.

So next time your dog has a mistake, don’t take offense or get mad at him. People would see more training success if they stopped wasting time playing the blame game with the dog and just looked at mistakes as information – they are the dog’s only way to give us feedback on our training plans. If you look at mistakes as information instead of affronts, you will find that they teach you every bit as much as your training successes.