Training Troubleshooting Series Part 2: Rewards and Expectations

Copyright Steve Holt /

When my family got our first dog, I remember going to the library, stacking up on training books and videos, and being shocked at how much of the literature focused on what dogs do incorrectly, as opposed to what dogs do correctly. To an eighth grader, this seemed unnecessarily negative, almost like getting an essay handed back to you coated in red ink.

Fast forward from eighth grade, and I still feel the same way. Luckily, dog training has progressed a great deal since then, with more leaders in the field encouraging students and dog owners to focus on – and reward – when a dog gets something right, and to prevent the chances of a dog getting something wrong.

It’s inevitable that dogs will make mistakes. It’s also true that we need to (humanely, without force) punish dogs with a time out or lack of reward to help them learn . Yet, if we get bogged down in all the things a dog does wrong, we miss golden opportunities to reward and increase the behaviors we love. What’s more, by focusing on giving a dog the greatest likelihood of success, we reduce the chance of that dog making errors in the future.

In an article on the concept of “errorless learning,” trainer Emily Larlham writes, “It is much easier to watch an animal and say ‘yes’ when you like what they are doing and ‘no’ when you don’t like what the animal is doing. It is much harder to create a training plan and adjust the plan using creative thinking when things go wrong.”

Expect your dog to behave like a dog

Many of the behaviors we consider “basic obedience” are actually quite unnatural for our dogs. Waiting in the doorway while we pull a delicious dinner out of the oven? Not natural. Sitting patiently while we pile on shoes and coats to take Fido out to use the bathroom? Not natural, or comfortable. Refraining from guarding highly valuable treats and toys? Definitely not natural. I often find it amazing that dogs do so well at adapting to our rules despite these unnatural demands. 

What’s important to remember during training is that your dog is learning. It’s your responsibility to make sure your dog learns at a level that progresses at the appropriate speed and difficulty. Children don’t learn to write an essay all at once. First they learn phonics, then how to spell, how to read, how to write, how to form thoughts into sentences … you get the idea. The same goes for teaching dogs any new behavior, or when dealing with an emotion: you start small, build gradually, and back up if your dog starts making repeated mistakes.

For example, say I want to teach a dog to “watch” on a verbal cue when at the dog park. First, I need to install the behavior. Then, I need to install a reliable verbal cue. Only then do I add in distractions – not all at once, but in increasing levels of difficulty. A treat dangle, a friend walking around the room, a noise at the door. When the dog reliably response to “watch!” with a myriad of indoor distractions, I can work on the behavior outside. If at any point the dog makes a large number of mistakes (which will happen, because learning can be difficult and messy), I must back up to an easier part of the plan.

Remember to view your training as a brick wall. Each step is a brick, and if you skip steps in the beginning, chances are your wall will tumble once you start adding more difficulty.

Give me one good reason

In order for dogs to reliably do the things we want them to do, we have to give them a reason. A very good reason.

Food rewards are a highly powerful training tool. If used correctly, they 1) alert your dog that she did something right, 2) increase her chances of doing that behavior again, and 3) help your dog develop a positive emotional association with training and her environment.

“Food is insanely powerful, insanely convenient … and carries the spectacular side effect of the dog liking the training a bit more every time it’s dispensed, liking the trainer and the trainer’s hands a bit more, and liking anything else that is a reasonable predictor of it,” writes Jean Donaldson in her article “Cooked Chicken Also Now Dangerous?”

Imagine the impact of receiving a rare delicacy after doing a behavior. This is exactly what we do with our dogs when we reward them. The impact is great, and it’s even greater if they receive a reward each time they do the behavior.

It may seem silly to reward a dog for using the bathroom outside – until you think about the alternative. The same goes for rewarding a dog for coming when called. While the endless repetitions and rewards might seem tiresome, they will be worth their weight in gold if your dog escapes her leash and collar at the dog park.

If your dog isn’t doing a behavior as often as you would like, or simply isn’t doing it at all, review your reward history:

  • Have you rewarded your dog each time the behavior occurred?
  • Have you used an actual reward (something more than verbal praise)?
  • Have you made the reward big enough for it to have an impact?

Training isn’t just about installing tricks and commands. It’s about facilitating learning. So get out there and not only train your dog, but create an environment where your dog has the best chance of succeeding.

– Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town. To get in touch, email her at