One of the big questions that comes about when discussing reward base training is what to do when things go wrong. Cookies are great and all, but what if you ask your dog to do something and he says no? Many trainers can get a dog to basic things for treats or other rewards, but staying away from corrections or force when things don’t go according to plan can be more difficult.
First, let’s talk about what to do in the moment. If you asked your dog to perform a behavior that you are sure he “knows” and he doesn’t do it, how do you respond? One choice is to force the dog to perform the behavior, but if you are reading this, chances are that’s not your plan. Another is to pull out a treat and lure the behavior, which may work in the moment but probably won’t be helpful in terms of your dog’s long term education. Why should your dog comply with your request if you produce cookies when he ignores you? For many behaviors, simply waiting the dog out can be an option, but there is one major factor to consider before doing this. If you are going to wait the dog out, you must, must, must remove any alternate reinforcement from the environment. Yep, there are probably things in your dog’s life that are equally or more appealing than the cookie or toy you are offering. So yes, wait the dog out if you can safely do so, but only if you can limit his access to fun things. This may mean moving farther away from a distraction (or having the distraction move farther from the dog), or simply holding the dog by the gently by the collar or on a short leash and waiting. If waiting isn’t an option, consider “resetting” the dog, by moving him a short distance and trying again. Either way, be sure to reward appropriately when the dog does what you have asked. If all else fails, abort the request and simply don’t reward the dog. No matter what happens in the moment, the next step is to analyze what went wrong
Once you have addressed the problem in the moment, take some time to consider what went wrong. Chances are, the dog’s understanding of what you were asking was context specific. Sit in the kitchen at dinner time doesn’t necessarily mean sit on the hunt field so I can leash you up and end the fun. Just as you can never go wrong by breaking a behavior into tiny pieces and rewarding every step of the process, you can never break generalization into too many steps. Does sit mean sit in every room of the house, outside in the yard, on a walk around the block, at the pet store, at the park, at an agility trial, on the hunt field? What if you are sitting on a chair, kneeling on the ground, lying on the couch, or doing a downward facing dog? While you may not have to train for every possible variation on every possible cue, you do have to teach the concept of generalization by working in lots of new places and situations. The importance of generalization will vary some depending on your dog’s lifestyle, since a service dog or competitive sports dog may have to work in more places than a stay at home pet, but every dog can benefit from having some variety in his life.
The third piece of the puzzle is management. Sometimes a behavior just isn’t trained or generalized enough to be used in every environment yet. If that’s the case, tools like crates, leashes, head halters, and fences might be you and your dog’s best friend.