In The Dog House – Turning a Failure into a Win

Failure is going to happen.  For a dog trainer, it happens every day.  In each of my classes, my clients fail at instructing their dog.  The failure is usually something small, a mistimed cue or a ill-timed distraction can take the wind of out of an owners sails.  At that point, it’s my job to offer encouragement, a little more instruction, and try to keep them moving forward.

I deal with failure with my own dogs all the time.  What’s funny is that everyone expects my dog to behave perfectly all of the time.  The truth is I have to work just as hard as every other owner.  I actually have to work harder than most owners, since I have to be nearly perfect when I’m teaching other people.  But I do experience failure.  I recently experienced the ultimate failure.  I had to help a client say goodbye to their dog.  We exhausted every avenue of behavior modification and chemical therapy before we made the decision.  I knew, on a cold logical level, that incidents like this could and would occur.  In all honesty, however, this particular case took me back to the line.  For the next two days, I questioned EVERYTHING that I was doing.  I had to make a decision to accept it, learn from it, own it, and move on.

When your dog doesn’t do what you’re asking it to do, most of the time the problem is on our end of the leash.  Late or confusing cues, late rewarding, lack of practice, or not practicing in places that provide some form of mild distraction can all contribute to failure.  When you make a mistake in my class, I’ll correct you on what you’re doing.  My classes are not to teach to your dog, but rather you the owner.  But I’m only with you for around 45 minutes once a week.  You’re going to practice without me and you’re going to make mistakes on your own.

How should handle I failures? Well first, decide if now is the time to address the failure.  Sometimes, I will let an owner make a few mistakes and then when they do something right, I’ll point that out.  Sometimes, I won’t even address the failure because it could be just a single mistake.  If it looks like it’s going to be a repetitive problem, then I’ll address when I see it again.

But what happens if I notice the failure and I don’t know what to do from there? The best thing to do is to stop training.  Sometimes you can skip right over a failure and keep going.  But most of the time, it trips you up.  That’s usually my cue to take a break, refocus myself and give my mind a break.  Once I’ve calmed down, then I can go back and analyze what happened and where I went wrong.

What if failure happened because I didn’t have control of the situation? Lack of control over the environment isn’t a true failure, at least not in the context we’re discussing today.  However, it should give you pause to consider how effective your training is and perhaps reconsider how and where you train.  When you can’t control the environment and something goes awry, it’s time to get out of that environment.  Training only works when you can keep your dogs attention and you can stay calm and focused.  So, when you’re practicing out in the world, have an exit strategy planned and ready to implement.

Failure is going to happen, be prepared for that.  But every failure is an opportunity to find weaknesses and strengthen them.  Keep working, keep trying, keep failing, and you will succeed.

Happy tails everyone!

-Ben the Dog Trainer


In The Dog House – The Two Dog Debate

Each week, I’m going to have two or three different blog posts (oh, I have a blog now! Yay!) about different aspects of training.  This post is called In The Dog House, and it’s going to be about my personal experience both as a trainer and owner.  This week’s post is about the Two Dog Debate – what is it like when you have a multiple dog household?

You see a lot of pictures of Flynn.  You also see a lot of videos of Flynn.  If you’ve taken a class with me, you may have met Flynn a time or two.  Flynn is my work dog.  When I first got Flynn, I was looking for a puppy specifically for work.  Flynn came along at the age of 6 weeks, and as a new trainer, I jumped at the opportunity to raise and shape a dog from the beginning.  For his part, Flynn is an excellent companion.  He is fiercely loyal, and obedient to a fault.  As a trainer, he made teaching obedience easy, although he did provide a few unique challenges along the way.  But I have a second dog, one that you don’t meet as often.


Phillip (sometimes called Prince Phillip) is our toy poodle, and he is the dog that got me into obedience work.  Phillip is a tough nut when it comes to obedience and behavior.  He doesn’t really love other dogs, but he does alright with them at home.  He’s attention motivated, which means that any attention he receives is a positive reinforcer.  He lacks a lot of motivation, so getting him to do anything he doesn’t want to at the moment can be difficult.  Also, he bites.  A lot.  He’s gotten much better, but he is still a biter.  Mess with his ears, you’re probably going to be bit.  Mess with his teeth, feet, tail, certain areas while grooming, you’re probably going to get bit.  If he doesn’t want to get up and go outside to go potty, and you try to force him, he’s going to get bit. Figuring out Phillip’s quirks is why I became a trainer. And as my skills as a trainer have improved, so has Phillip’s personality.  Don’t be misled, Phillip is a very affectionate dog too.  He loves to cuddle.  He loves to play and he is the epitome of a lap dog.  He’s got his quirks, but he’s a wonderful dog.  So why don’t you see Phillip more?

A few reasons, most of which I just named.  But Phillip’s attitude is a little more unpredictable, and given his more anti-social nature, he isn’t a good choice to bring to class with me.  Nor is he a good dog to demonstrate behaviors because he lacks a lot motivation to do most things.  Flynn has so much more energy, drive and desire to please that I can get him to try almost anything.  Does this mean Phillip is a bad dog? No, of course not.  Does this mean I love Flynn more? Definitely not.  The good thing about Phillip is I just can accept him the way he is.  A lack of drive in the obedience area translates into a lack of drive for getting in trouble.  I don’t have to manage Phillip as much as I do with Flynn.  But I love both of my boys dearly.  They are both very unique dogs and I couldn’t be happier with them.

Many owners with multiple dogs face this problem: am I treating both dogs equally? Does one dog think I love one of them more than the other? I want to put your mind to ease.  It’s okay to treat your dogs a little differently.  When you have multiple dogs in your home, you’re going to treat each dog differently, because they are each different creatures with sometimes vastly different personalities.  I spend more time with Flynn because Flynn needs more time.  I also expect a lot out of Flynn, so I have to spend time working with him and keeping him sharp.  Phillip is my lazy day dog.  He doesn’t need or want all of the extra time spent working.  He wants to flake out in my lap while I watch Netflix.  You have different relationships with different people and the same can be said of your dogs.  Your dog will let you know if the relationship needs work.  Don’t neglect your pets, but accept that each dog will set their own boundaries and develop their own unique relationship with you.

Take some time every day and give each dog what they want.  Spend time with them doing what they like to do and really enjoy the unique bond you have with each dog in your home.  Tell me a little bit about your dogs at home? What kind of relationships do you have with them?

Until next week, happy tails!