Today I want to talk about teaching your dog to fix mistakes. This idea came to me during a men’s group at church, where we were talking about the difference between acting and being acted upon. In our lives, we essentially have those two options. You probably know yourself as someone who fits one of these two groups: you’re either a person who acts, or a person who’s acted upon.
The people who are acted upon are those who are constantly complaining. They say things like: “My boss did this to me,” or “My spouse did that to me,” or “My life isn’t like it should be because this happened to me”—and so on. You probably know the type of person I’m talking about! But there are also people who act. They do what they know needs to be done. They push forward.
The same is true of dog training, because we want to train dogs who act. Here’s a principle I’ve found to be true, time and time again: the more proactive the dog is in fixing his mistake, the sooner he will stop making that mistake. This is especially relevant in puppy training and aggressive dog training.
Here’s an example. If you’ve been attending training classes and teaching your dog the “place” command—say, to go to his bed and stay there—and your dog keeps getting off the bed, then that’s a mistake. Your dog was supposed to stay on the bed. If this is the first session and your dog just doesn’t understand the meaning of the command, of course, then it’s not really fair to call this a mistake. But imagine that you’re further along in the training process and your dog already knows what the place command means, but decides to get off the bed anyway.
What needs to happen in order to fix that mistake? Well, then he needs to go back to the bed and not get off again. You could resort to two extremes in order to get your dog back on the bed: you could take food and lure your dog back to his place, or you could grab him by his neck and throw him onto the bed. These are polar extremes—but do either of them result in your dog fixing his mistake?
No, they don’t! Why? Because neither of these scenarios require your dog to be proactive in fixing his mistake. On the one end, your dog is simply following a treat. He’s not solving the mistake that he’s made. In the teaching stage, we might do something like this. But if the dog already understands the command and still makes a mistake, the luring him back with a treat won’t be effective. It won’t help him learn to avoid that kind of behavior in the future.
On the other end of the scale, you’re throwing your dog around and being very rough with him. That’s obviously wrong too, for a lot of reasons! But your dog won’t learn from that scenario either, because it also doesn’t require him to be proactive about his mistakes. He’s just being dragged from Point A to Point B. At no point during that process does he need to learn or think about the mistake that he made.
What’s the solution? It lies in doing what I tell clients all the time: helping the dog in the most necessary way, but with the least possible intrusion. That can mean a lot of different things.
Let’s say that the dog gets off the bed. He already knows how to behave, so I don’t want to just lure him back or be unfairly rough with him. Instead, I might use a small leash correction or a bit of an e-collar correction, telling the dog to get back to the correct spot. If I simply offer a little bit of suggestion, then I’m allowing myself to be the impetus for change. But it’s the dog who is actually, physically moving forward and opting to do the correct thing. I’ve allowed the dog to be the one who’s proactive in fixing his mistake.
Of course I’m always there to offer help and motivation to the dog, but I want him to consistently do more and more of the work himself. As I remove a little bit of help, then he needs to do a little bit more—and so on. This principle just works. It’s why I teach it to all of my clients and try to speak about as much as possible. The more proactive a dog is in fixing his mistake, the sooner he will stop making it.
Does your dog continually make the same mistake? If so, is there anything you can do to help him be more proactive about that mistake? How can you communicate to your dog the best way to solve that mistake by himself? Answer those questions, and you’ll be on your way to fixing the problem in no time!