We’ve all been there: In the midst of a training session, things go downhill. Your dog looks at you like you’ve grown a second head, even when you give a cue he should know backwards, forwards, and sideways. You grow increasingly frustrated. It’s tempting to punish the dog or at the very least yell and slam some doors. But you know that’s counter-productive. Yet, if you end the training session on a bad note, you know the dog won’t be as eager for training next time. What should you do? Press on in the face of frustration? End the training session knowing you’ve gone backwards instead of forwards?
Find Something to Reinforce
If you’re still calm enough to objectively observe your dog’s behavior, one option in this situation is to sit back, stop throwing cues and body language at your dog, and wait for something to reinforce. Even something as simple as a sit with eye contact will do. Give a big jackpot of treats and end the training session. Dogs that get an undeserved big reward sometimes suddenly become more responsive during the next training session, so long as this surprise jackpot technique is used rarely.
Count to Thirty
You can also try a technique used by marine mammal trainers. When you’re getting frustrated and your dog won’t listen, turn your back and count silently to thirty. The long pause in cues and reinforcement is enough to convey that you’re not pleased, without being punishing enough to damage your dog’s training.
Stop Right There
If you know you’re greatly upset and frustrated by the situation, don’t worry about future training or what impact stopping on a bad note might have. Just stop. Put the treats and clicker away, escort the dog inside if you were outdoors, and leave the room. Go surf the web or read a book for at least 30 minutes. Then get your treats and clicker again and ask for one simple behavior, click, treat and leave it at that for the day.
Back It Up
If the training session started out going well but suddenly things went to heck in a handbasket, you can try backtracking. Take a thirty second pause and then start again with the first thing you asked of your dog during this training session. Calmly request that behavior again, no matter how simple it was. Progress forward to just before the point in the training session where things got difficult. Then stop right at the edge of the problem you’re having, end the training session, and spend some time thinking about how you can make things go better the next time. Don’t try to work on the same behaviors again until you’ve thought of a new strategy.