How many times have you heard or said “Always end a training session on a good note?” I heard it repeatedly when I first went into the field and said it myself, until I saw how much trouble it could cause a dog and his handler. I got to thinking about this training aphorism when I was working sheepdog Maggie this weekend, and she and I weren’t able to drive the sheep in the “practice course” I’d set up for her. It was just too difficult a task for her and me on the particular day with those particular sheep. Years ago I would have switched tasks and set her up to do something easy before I said “That’ll Do”. But I didn’t. I just called her back, said “All Done, that’s a girl Maggie” and walked her back to the car.
It got me to wondering about why I made that choice, rather than “ending on a good note”. And it got me thinking about the concept as relates to family dog training, and why I think it often gets people in trouble.
I’ll start by noting that a significant factor in my stopping Maggie’s session this weekend was that she was hot and tired. Maggie loves to work sheep–if she could talk she’d edit that to “Maggie LIVES to work sheep“. However, when she’s hot and tired she has trouble focusing on both controlling the sheep and listening to my signals. She doesn’t want to quit, but she begins making mistakes and behaving as if her brain is a little rattled. It is not a misuse of anthropomorphism to argue that most of us can understand what that feels like. There was simply no value in asking her to get more tired by doing something she already knows how to do well. She doesn’t need me to build motivation, and I didn’t need to set her up to fail at something she’s normally good at.
I wonder if therein lie the answers to whether to quit when things don’t go well, or to continue by switching to something easy that the dog can do well. Maggie didn’t need motivation to want to try again later; she didn’t want to stop working when I ended the session. That doesn’t mean she would have learned anything good if we had kept at it. Dogs like Maggie remind me of young kids who’ve been in the pool too long. “I’m not cold!” they exclaim, their lips turning blue as they begin to shiver. Just because Maggie wanted to keep working doesn’t mean it would have been be good for her. More likely, she would have made a mistake that she wouldn’t normally have made. Then what? End the session then? Try something even easier?
This is the slippery slope I’ve seen people slide down in family dog training over and over again, and it often ends in a hard landing. The heeling session isn’t going well and so the handler switches to something the dog can do well. Except heeling wasn’t going well because Chester or Britches was distracted by children playing across the street, and so the sit response fell apart too. It’s just too easy to keep trying to find that “good note” while one thing after another falls apart. I’ve seen it happen hundreds if not thousands of times, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for everyone involved.
If dogs are motivated to learn, whether working sheep or learning to their manners, then they are going to be happy to pick up a training session where you left off. And that’s on us. There’s nothing inherently reinforcing about heeling to a dog, unless we link it with a primary reinforcer like food or play. If we’ve done our job correctly, we don’t start training until we know what our dog wants as a reinforcer. For sheep dogs, it’s easy. Sheepdogs–sheep. Mission accomplished. (Although there is nuance here too: Maggie and Willie both love doing big, wide outruns and don’t like putting pressure on slow, “heavy” sheep.) For most dogs learning to sit, stay and come when called isn’t initially reinforcing, but getting treats or a play session is.
I also think it’s easy to forget how tiring it is to learn something new. Remember that when we humans are learning something new, say a sport, we have an idea of what we’re aiming for, whether it’s getting the ball in the basket or learning to jump over the pole. Dogs have no idea about the end game, and that can be exhausting. Ever played the clicker game in which the trainee leaves the room while everyone else decides what the trainer is going to train the subject to do? If not, you should, because to a person, the trainee, who is in the dark about what she is supposed to do, feels at best confused, and at worst frustrated. I’ve never seen a bite, but people have confessed they’ve been tempted. We can’t always tell when our dogs are mentally or emotionally exhausted, but we should always be cognizant of how tiring it is to learn something new.
I should be clear here: (Thank you early commenters!): I’m talking here about sessions in which things aren’t going well, and the tendency to want to “fix it” by trying to end on that furtive “good note.” That’s when, I’m suggesting, it’s time to call it a day, to let the dog rest and go back to it when you are both fresh and relaxed. I think it’s always best to end a session before you get into trouble if you can, especially if you are doing counter conditioning or desensitization. This is when it’s critical to know when to stop. (Which is usually before you think you should, at least in early years of training, right?). The last thing you want is to gradually work a dog up to being comfortable with an approaching stranger, and then push it too far by trampling too far over the dog’s comfort zone. But you can’t always predict how even a simple sit or stay training session is going to go, and if it’s going poorly, there’s nothing wrong, and perhaps something right, with giving it a rest.
I wish we had some research on the effects of ending a session when things are going poorly versus continuing in search of a happy ending. (Side note: How many times have I said “I wish we had some research on…”? Often enough for it to be a new drinking game?) It’s interesting to think about this issue from an operant perspective, although we can only guess how a dog perceives the end of a training session. Is it a relief? Or a kind of negative punishment, as in “Wait, you took my chance to get chicken bits away!” Is continuing a session with something more fun and easy a kind of positive reinforcement for messing up in the first place?
There is some interesting science that doesn’t address this directly, but does give us some guidance about factors that effect learning in dogs. Affenzeller et. al. (2016) found that Labradors Retrievers performed better if allowed to play after a learning session rather than rest for thirty minutes. On the other hand, we also know that sleep can consolidate learning: see Julie Hecht’s post about the research of Anna Kis of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Family Dog Project. In summary, dogs asked to sit and stay in a new language did better if allowed to sleep after the session rather than playing, going on a walk or learning something else new. However, that result only held for the short term. A week after the sessions, the dogs in all the conditions performed equally well, except the dogs who were taught something new. Because sleep has been shown to consolidate memory in so many species, perhaps the long-term results might have been different if the dogs were allowed to sleep longer than thirty minutes. Nevertheless, the results are clear that teaching a dog several new things in a row is not ideal. The lead researcher’s advice is:
“Learning a new command should be followed by an activity that does not interfere with this new memory trace (e.g. sleeping, walking, playing–but not learning other things) in order to achieve the highest subsequent performance in the long run.”
But that’s pretty much exactly what happens in training classes, in which three to six different things are often taught in one session. I don’t see anyway around that in a class setting, but we might be wise to instruct owners to go home and work on things one at a time at home. That’s actually how I do most of my family dog training at home, slipping in an exercise as part of daily life, which also has the advantage of being done in context. I’ve never forgotten Ian Dunbar’s advice on the importance of teaching and performing in context, and it’s served me well. Thank you Dr. Dunbar.
This research also relates to “ending on a good note.” I’d argue if it’s something that the dog already knows well, is motivated to do, and is not mentally fried, then it well might not cause any harm. Does it help? I don’t think we know. I can imagine situations in which it might help some dogs in some cases, but I suspect, in general, this maxim is more often for our own sake rather than the dogs’.
By the way, circling back to Maggie, I did work her again on my own sheep after she’d had a long rest and deep sleep. I set up a similar situation that was less challenging, and she did beautifully. I do think setting up a dog to succeed is a good thing, and that revisiting a problematic issue is important. The question is when, right?
Lots of nuance here: I’m curious what you think and what your experiences have been. Please chime in, I suspect lots of us are looking forward to what others have to say.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We’ve had a heavenly weekend with a delightful guest from the east coast (more on that next week). Great weather, and lots of indicators that summer is waning. Most of the fireflies are long gone; we see a few hapless ones each night who apparently missed the memo and came late to the party. Garden spiders are spinning elaborate webs. Mornings are often accompanied by ground fog. The bees are busy. As a bee. (Sorry, but they are all over the yard, on dozens of types of flowers, and are well, busy.) It makes me truly happy that we have so many healthy bees in the yard, given how much bee species are struggling.
The day lilies are almost done blooming, but there are three late bloomers who I can see right now out the kitchen window. I’m trying to store up color in my soul like the bees gather pollen, because the Brown, Black and White Time is coming soon. This is one of my favorite colors.
All the dogs were sound asleep while I was writing this and I thought a photo of them sleeping would accompany this post’s topic nicely. This is what happened as soon as I got out my camera:
Hopefully they were consolidating a lot of useful, good memories.
You say that you didn’t ask Maggie to do something else when she failed at the sheep training session you had set up; but you also say that when you realized that she was failing, you “just called her back” rather than ask her to do something else, and mention sit as an example of the something else one might ask the dog to do. From a learning and “ending on a good note” point of view, what’s the difference between a recall and a sit? I’d love a continuation exploring that issue, maybe as a separate post?
It’s funny because I have always interpreted the “end on a successful note” rule to mean that we should know when to stop. I think the tendency of most people is to keep going when things are going well. We almost dare the dog to fail. How far can I push him before he fails? So, to me, quitting on a good note always meant don’t push it. You’re having fun, things are going well, don’t wait for things to go down hill. If you’ve been training for a decent amount of time and you’ve made progress and you and your dog are still smiling, that’s the time to quit.
If it’s not that, then I agree with you. Stopping what you are doing and then going out of your way to ask the dog to do something it already knows may be a little beneficial some of the time, but I don’t think it’s something we have to stress about.
That’s what my dogs do as soon as I take my phone out to take a picture. What is up with that? 🙂
Oooh, great comments already. I knew I could count on the village. First, HFR, your point is important that “end on a good note” can be taken in many different ways. I agree with you exactly that we all need to know when to stop, ideally when things are going well. And I agree also to the tips of my fingers and toes that it’s easy to repeat and repeat and repeat for no purpose whatsoever. I describe that in seminars as “You’re going to do it until you get it wrong.” It took me a few years that I could ask for a sit or stay just once, in context and with a good reinforcement, and that was a fantastic session.
What I’ve seen people do often is get into a situation in which things aren’t going well, and instead of ending the session, feel compelled to end “on a good note” with something that the dog can do well. Or worse, to try again (and again) to get it right. That’s where the rubber really hits the road.
To Michael: Great question! Love that you asked. You are absolutely right that I called Maggie back to me (a cue for sure), which was something one could categorize as simply another behavior that she knew and was good at. Thus, I ended “on a good note.” But a working sheepdog session includes working on a variety of things, from learning whistles as adverbs (go clockwise big and wide, go clockwise fast and tight) to facing down an aggressive ewe, to driving sheep away to… on and on and on. The dogs knows, (I think, just guessing of course) that being called back is the end of the session. End on a good note here, to me, would be asking for a short, simple outrun, or using voice cues instead of whistles. But who knows how Maggie would define it. It’s a great question, and I throw it out to the village.
Fantastic post!!! I do have a question though. Do you think there is something to be said for “ending on a positive note” when it comes to desensitization or something like conditioning a dog/puppy to have his or her nails cut or Demeled? I have a post on my blog (Big Dog Mom) where I do recommend people end on a positive note when training their dog to get their nails cut without fear. I have found that by ending a session with just one nail cut versus pushing for two or more nails with a dog your trying to condition works best – in other words “ending on a good note” when the dog is relatively happy about the whole thing and not running away (of course we would never push so hard that the dog would want to run away, but wanted to illustrate the two extremes so the question makes sense). There is a lot more to my article, but I am really interested in your take with respect to whether there is something to this in the case of desensitization. Hopefully I am using the right terminology. Thank you!!
Stephanie: This is such a good point, and so important I’m revising the post from earlier today. To clarify, I am absolutely in agreement that if you can, it’s best to end on a good note, especially when doing counter conditioning. As I read the comments, I realize what I was talking about was when things go badly, and people think they can’t stop until they “end on a good note.” Thanks for helping me clarify what I meant!
lee williams says
Working functional obedience, Rally-O, agility, etc., one could, I think, always find a way to end on a good note with a simple behavior, such as a recall. I always end a training session by throwing treats on the ground and saying, “find it!” It’s simple, fun, and gives the signal that our “formal” training session is over. So, that’s something that could be used for the preverbial “end on a good note.”
I definitely see that the recall while working sheep would signal “the end of the fun” for a BC, though, and the sport does not lend itself to a simple, easy behavior to end on, so it’s best to just call it quits.
I’ve mentioned here before my horror when working with various herding trainers. One who worked her BC in the heat and humidity to the point the dog left the sheep and went under a building to find shade, huffing and puffing. The trainer wanted me to pull her dog out, and I refused. One, I didn’t want to be bitten. Two, she was exhausted, and I found it abusive. Needless to say, I never went back. I’ve never understood why anyone would practice themselves or their dogs an incorrect behavior over and over.
There is (human) research that shows when learning a task, what is learned first is often the behavior that is presented when under stress. If I and/or my dog (we) are not getting something, I stop quickly to re-group and determine what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it rather than practice the incorrect behavior many times.
So, I agree. Just stop. But, of course, let our dogs know we aren’t upset. (-:
Dogs are mind-readers–even in their sleep!
As always a very thought provoking post. I never worry about whether I ended on a good note with Ranger. He has a lot of emotional resilience and if it was a lousy training session and everything was going wrong and we just quit he’ll be perfectly happy to try again tomorrow. Finna, on the other hand, has considerably less resilience and she’ll hold onto a failure and be hesitant to try again tomorrow. She’s happy to do more training but that thing she couldn’t get the day before she’s reluctant to try again. Since I know that about her it’s up to me to make sure I don’t push her beyond her ability to succeed and to make sure we don’t end with failure and frustration. As an example, I’m currently training Finna to weave walk–weaving back and forth between my legs on each step. Finna’s reward of choice is a chance to chase the ball so I use it to lure her through each step then after three steps mark and reward by chucking the ball as far to the end of the yard as I can. She brings the ball back and we do it again. Two or three repetitions and we switch to something she already knows an does well or to simply chucking the ball with no other behavior asked. We’ve been working on this trick for a couple of days now and as long as I manage to start her right it’s looking really good. Sadly, I don’t always manage to start her right but we’re working on it. To me working with a dog like Finna I feel like tucking the new behavior into practicing mastered behavior insulates her from the frustration of failing. It may take her multiple tries to get the weave right and there is no reward until the weave is right and if it takes her five tries to get it right we might stop after that one right weave, if she gets it right first try we may do three or four practices before switching but it’s my jog not to overwhelm her by endless repetitions and not to keep her practicing until she fails. My job is to make sure she feels good about the training and feels like she succeeded. If I don’t think Finna is up to practicing something new we wait; Ranger doesn’t have to feel like he was a success but Finna does. It’s my job to be in tune with her so I can set her up for success. I don’t ever set Ranger up for failure but in all honesty with him I can afford to be sloppy sometimes, with Finna I can’t.
I have been trying to remember when I last “trained” my dogs. They are frequently praised and rewarded for good manners, walk politely on leash, come when called, wait when asked, sit in a row with the cats to take treats in turn, and these days often know what I am going to say or do before I do myself. But formal training – even every day, in-context teaching of new behaviours – is something that has fallen away as we have got into a comfortable routine of walks and meals and snoozing. I suspect that this is true of most dog owners who are not into competition work. But looking back, I am not sure that I ever really followed the “end on a good note” mantra very closely, for different reasons for each dog. Sophy, when she has had enough, makes it very obvious. She sits, stares, and tells me I am not making sense, she can’t understand any of the noises I am making, and she now wants to go back to bed, thank you very much. Forcing her to do anything, even something as simple as a sit, would be counter productive – if we get to that stage I have already pushed her too far (it doesn’t happen often now that I have learned better). Poppy gets over excited, and can no longer concentrate on anything – she needs a slow, calm walk away from distractions to give her time to get her brain back in synch. I tend to agree with the other comments – perhaps it should be “quit while you are ahead” rather than “end on a good note”.
Sue Lindsay says
I occasionally end an agility training session when my dog begins to question or fail at something she knows well. I’ve found that taking a break, whether an hour or a day, and returning to the lesson plan, works very well. Early in their careers, I teach a cue that rewards the dogs’ leaving work so I don’t have the fallout of a negative association with stopping the course.
It helps to pay attention to your own connection with your dog; if things don’t feel right, advocate for your dog. If you are working with a good trainer, they will understand. If not, you may teach them something about partnership
Miley and I are training for TDX. She breezed through the TD training and easily got that title. She seemed to love tracking. Then came a hot dry spring and summer. The short dry grass does not hold the scent as well, at least it is different, as the taller wet grass she was used to. When it’s too difficult she goes back and forth across the track searching for the scent. I help her find the track but often by then she often no longer wants to play the game and hunts vermin instead, digging in mouse holes or pouncing on whatever. I believe this is displacement behavior. At that point I have not been successful in getting her back to tracking even in “better” conditions down the track a ways. The reward for tracking is finding the glove at the end, getting lots of treats, and getting to chase and retrieve the glove. But if we are 200 yards from the glove I don’t know how to end it without her thinking that hunting critters is the reward. BTW, my idea about what is an easy motivational track is not always the same as hers. I may lay a “difficult” track that she breezes through or a “motivational” track that she gets frustrated with. How should I end the session after she has started hunting?
I wonder if when the overall goal of training is enjoyment whether that changes the criteria for when to end a session and also whether to teach more than one thing at a time (my guys seem to like to work on a variety of tasks, and also I train all three of them at the same time). Maybe it’s like the difference between playing a family soccer game vs. training for a professional competition. My introduction to dog training was through hiring a trainer to help me cheer up/ energize my elderly dog, and as a result training with my current young dogs is more about having fun and teaching me to read their feelings/behaviours than me teaching them specific behaviours/tasks. Anyway, I also try to ‘quit when I’m ahead,’ meaning that I’m still feeling patient and upbeat, and that the dogs are neither too frustrated nor over-excited. Most often, we quit when the treats have run out.
Ana Schnellmann says
Thank you for another well-written, thought-provoking post! I wonder if another nuance could be thinking of the mental fatigue factor of the trainer. It was impressed on me that I should work with my dog every day, unfailingly–not for long, just ten to fifteen minutes at a time. One day, when we were practicing, the dog was fine; I was not. It had been a stressful day, and I found myself getting impatient when the dog made mistakes on things she “should” know well. I recognized that I wasn’t doing her or myself any good, so I just quit for the day, giving her a pet and a praise as I called off the session. In retrospect, I think she was reacting to my impatience, although I was trying to hide/disguise it. She was making mistakes because she felt she was making mistakes. It seems better to me to skip a session when anyone–two-legged or four-legged–is having an off day, and I’d be eager to hear other people’s thoughts.
It’s interesting how as handlers we can be prone keep going on too long becasue of the positive reinforcement WE are getting when the dog is succeeding.
Perhaps ending at an ‘optimal’ time might be a better strategy than ending ending on a ‘good note’. If things are not going well then knowing when and how to stop at the optimal time seems like a good strategy and if things are going well then ‘optimal’ is not be continuing on until things deteriorate and we end up we grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.
“You gotta know when to hold ’em an when to fold ’em’ to quote a song.
Your point that ending on a good note isn’t always the best tactic reminds me of an incident with my two BCs after I introduced frisbee fetching. At one point they returned with the frisbee and there followed a snarling tussle over which would give it to me. I took it without saying a word and walked into the house. End of game. Next day I noticed one of the two was going after the frisbee only every other throw. I was puzzled as Hooper was the superior athlete, tireless and fast. Finally I realized she was taking turns. The other dog also caught on and there was never another tussle during any of our fetching games. The intelligence these two dogs displayed in so many aspects over the years never failed to amaze me. Now I have a different BC that I am working with sheep, farm chores rather than trialing. She is losing her hearing (early onset deafness) so we are both learning how to communicate directions. When we’re having difficulty with something, I’ve found sometimes it’s best to call her off without any drama and give her time to think about it. She is a clever girl and usually figures things out. I thank my dog, Hooper, for teaching me this lesson.
Looking a your pictures, it seems that one of your dogs is a Cavalier? If so, I will just say that we too have a little Cavalier who is the love of our lives. Have not ever gone farther than the basics with her – she is almost 3, but are thinking of attempting to train her as a therapy dog since she has such a love for people. I have enjoyed your books and look forward to your blogs – living vicariously in your beautiful part of the country – especially in the summer when it is so hot here in Phoenix that even a walk is impossible because of hot pavement.
Aly Greene says
Love this article! Thanks so much for sharing it. I have to say that this mindful approach works equally well with people and horses too….
Cynthia Becker says
My Chows are very plain when they are “done”. If I overstep, which I try not to do( but being human, it happens), they are “on strike”. Asking for even a simple behavior is a no go. That being said, we have successfully trained for Rally, Freestyle, Barn Hunt, Agility and Therapy work. They are fine going back to training later
I just try to stop before the “strike”occurs. Getting better at it but still many stops on “FAIL!”, few times it kept us from our goals. I consider the failure mine to own.😊
I train bird dogs. When the dogs are making mistakes, we end the session. That is because the dog *always* wants more. By putting them up, we are removing their reward, which is to continue working. This may not a popular opinion in the +R group, but often times, putting a dog up when things are going poorly results in a better performance the next time up. The dog seems to remember that the last time they did a certain behavior, the fun ended.
I always tell my clients that they should consider giving their dogs an “end of session” present. I “freebie” find it game of 5-7 treats, a little play session, or the chance to go sniff something delicious they’ve been ignoring. To me, this is ending on a good note, not in terms of the dog’s performance, but in terms of my reinforcement of the dog’s engagement. Although I use it whether things went well or poorly, it’s especially important, I think, when the training session has gone a little off the rails and the dog has gotten frustrated or confused.
I’ve had clients wonder whether doing this wouldn’t make dogs less likely to want to work the next time (Aren’t we reinforcing stopping working?). In my experience, the effect is exactly the opposite. And I was thrilled when the play-after-training-session Labrador study was done as some first real evidence to support this.
What do you all think about this? Anyone else give End of Session presents?
Interesting! I learned to interpret this in two ways. First, I try to force myself to stop at the peak of the training session. This is hard, as another poster noted, because the dog’s success is so reinforcing for the trainer that we want more! Second, if I am increasing criteria during a training session, I can reach a point where the learner “fails”. If I get a clear mistake, I back up to an easier step, which may result in ending on a good note. If I get a couple of successes at the easier level, I may also progress to that harder step instead of ending the session. If I get two mistakes in a row, I end the session and go do MY homework to figure out a better plan. Depending on the dog, I may or may not give an easy cue so that the dog ends on a reinforcer and not just me walking away.
Maenad Widdershins says
I think this relates to what we call where I train “do I have a dog.” There are also days when I think I’m going to train one thing, and I discover that one of my foundational behaviors is just broken, and I can’t train the piece I want to.
For example, at a “fun match” situation, I may have a list of exercises to work, but I get there and I can’t even walk into the ring with attention. So I switch tactics, and we work on entering the ring with a dog that can pay attention even with the distractions around me.
Other times, I have to backtrack because I may be trying to build up too fast, and the dog just doesn’t know the foundational pieces of the exercise. Dogs are not good generalists, and I have to lay a solid foundation, or we hit a point where everything falls apart – not the dog’s fault – my fault.
And of course there are those days where I am distracted, and my mind is elsewhere, and I’m just a lousy trainer, so we play fetch and try again another day.
Pat Engel, CPDT-KA says
Thanks for the post. I too, as an instructor, have passed on the ‘end on a good note’ maxim, but I’ve also passed on the ‘training should be fun, for you and your dog’ idea. If your dog is having fun, and you end when they do something well, is this not negative punishment? I think the more useful concept is, if things aren’t going well, end the session, but do not be cross with your dog 🙂
Liz Sharpe says
I think that ending on a good note can include stopping non-progress. Just plain stopping itself can be a confirmation of your good relationship with your dog. If a task is proving too difficult, especially if you haven’t lost your own patience, calling it quits in a way that tells your partner you’re still on fine terms with them can actually be reassuring. I don’t think dogs’ comprehension is nearly as complex as that of humans, but I do think that on some level, they respond to the sympathy of a quiet pat and a calm voice saying, “that was really hard, wasn’t it, and you tried your best, good dog. It’s ok. We’ll cool off for a bit now.” If they’ve been over-faced in a training situation, but come away still trusting you and willing to try again later, you can try again later.
I’m thinking just now of my Border Collies on sheep, but it also applied to other kinds of dogs and other disciplines I’ve worked on in the past.
Isn’t it really, always, about knowing your dog well enough to be able to identify when she can/should be pushed a bit and when she can’t/shouldn’t? If my dog’s “coping juice tank” is empty, we are DONE, no matter what just happened. I think she recognizes that as “ending on a good note.”
cl vondette says
I try hard to end on a good note for me. I do the herding thing and if training I find when my frustration level gets high its time to quit. But then when doing real chores sometimes we just have to work through it and keep going. Being attuned to your dog is so important. I really like the post but sometimes just a lie down and rest a bit is enough reward before we start up again. The thing about a time out research is intersting. When I first got into herding the old timers had me build a kennel in a refridgerator. After a training session they are put into the highly insulated kennel and allowed to think . It was a belief held by the old shepherds a dog learned in the kennel not during the time training
Cristina Meyer says
For me “leaving on a good note” means two things:
– when I’m training and the dog (or horse) did something really good, I quit. I praise, hand out treats and relax.
– when training fails, I just shrug my shoulders and tell my dog (or horse) that it was not the right day or moment. And we quit, we do something relaxing and easy, a massage, a walkie, whatever.
Only if a dog / horse lacks confidence, then I would try the exercise much much easier (instead of a jump, a pole in the ground) or something the dog/horse likes to do. Very easy, so I can praise a lot and shower treats.
And the next training starting three levels lower.
I thought the point about how you, or your dog was doing mentally or physically is an important one, and it might be the crux of the problem in these situations. I was always taught to “end on a good note,” in training with my dogs, but one piece of advice one of our instructors gave me has always stood out. He said, if you make a mistake, like, correcting the dog when he didn’t do anything wrong, it won’t ruin your relationship. Dogs are very forgiving. I feel as though this could apply to ending a training session without finding a good note. If it only happens every once in a while, the dog should probably be fine in my opinion, especially if it’s a behavior they know well. This happens a lot actually when I’m working with my dog. If the environment is stressful, like, if it’s crowded, too hot/cold, or he’s just been working all day, he’ll start to get sloppy and we’ll just take a break. I might ask him to find a bench, but like you Tricia, it’s more of an unintentional command, and I’m not trying to end on a “good note,” I just need him to do it because I can’t find the bench on my own. This is why I’m so watchful when we’re out working. If he’s tired, brain-fried, hot or just distracted, it puts our safety at risk, so taking a break without anything positive is a good thing. I say this too, with knowledge of my own dog. Like Ranger, Seamus is secure enough to be able to end things in that way, and be just fine the next day, ready to pick up where we left off, but it’s different for every dog.
Love the article and comments. I’ve been told the same thing about the “good note” forever. Nice if you can find a “good note”, but that isn’t always possible. My 1 year old Aussie suddenly “forgot” ALL the basic obedience commands. My conclusion is that he is bored to tears by the training class we’ve been attending. He is ready for calculus but is being forced to add 2+2 over and over. I need to switch him to something more challenging like agility.
From where I stand you did end on a good note. A good note doesn’t always mean success.
I’m confused by Lee’s “There is (human) research that shows when learning a task, what is learned first is often the behavior that is presented when under stress.” If you’re still here, could you elaborate for me?
Love Frances’s “quit while we’re ahead.” I think that will be a beneficial switch in how I look at it. Thank you!
Karen’s Hooper story: just… Wow!!
Training a very intelligent BC now my interpretation to leave with a good note is more about the location and activity then training. So if things don’t go well I throw a ball and play with toys for a few minutes. That hopefully leaves my dog with a positive memory of what we’ve done and then I just leave for the day. My dog is very motivated but also intelligent enough to know something didn’t go well and I don’t want him to take it on himself.
Being fairly new to the game, I’ve always taken the advice of ending a teaching lesson on good note, and I still use it with my old dog and I don’t think it’s bad advice. I have had instances, though, where I am SEARCHING for the proper ending.
We don’t work sheep where circumstances change constantly. You have your dog and how he feels, the sheep and how they feel and move, you and how you feel, the weather, the terrain, the bee that buzzed the dogs ear (or if it was my ear a much greater distraction)..and so on and so on.
But I should not underestimate that even in “more” controlled environments such as a living room, circumstances still play a role (including the age of the dog). Perhaps when I begin to “search” for a positive ending…best to just end it (positively) and try again another time.
Thanks as always!
Jann Becker says
Good post-there has to be interest and energy on “both ends of the leash” for productive training, and sometimes one runs out before the other! We’re in an intermediate class which does do the “six things each week.” It was frustrating the night that Dooley was a frazzled little heap with 10 minutes left to go; they tell us to give them breaks between activities but it’s so tempting to slip in some “puppy zen,” rather than let him do, like, nothing. His interest revived with a few treats tossed far enough away that he had to get up and go after them that night, and we’re all taking August off from class to regroup.
Elma W. says
I found that by last session with only one nail cut versus pushing for two lots of nails with a dog your trying to condition works best – in various words “ending on an honest note” once the dog is relatively happy relating to the complete issue and not effort (of course we’d never push so arduous that the dog would wish to run away, but wanted parenthetically the two extremes thus the queries is wise. i want to bachelor’s degree see that the recall whereas operational sheep would signal “the end of the fun” for a B.C., though, and additionally the game does not lend itself to a simple, easy behavior to end on, so it’s best to simply call it equal. I’ve mentioned here before my horror once operational with various gregarious trainers. One World Health Organization worked her B.C. among the warmth and condition to the aim the dog left the sheep and went below a building to hunt out shade, huffing and puffing.
Jennifer Hirakawa says
Love this post and the comments. As my training partner and friend Robin says, “Don’t train until it’s ugly”.
Tess Starr says
Great blog! I think the “always quit on a good note” is a hold over from traditional dog training. We were told you didn’t want to end a session having just had to correct the dog (i.e use a pinch collar to correct lagging in heeling) you wanted to end with the dog being compliant. From a human perspective that certainly felt better, and possibly from the dog’s perspective you wouldn’t want avoidance or escape behaviors to be what removed the unpleasant stimulus to stop.
I’m not sure that adage still applies with modern dog training. I think it should be “stop with a little progress, don’t keep training until it falls apart” but if it does fall apart I think it’s best to abort the session. It doesn’t seem to have any negative consequences, most of the time the next session picks up right at the mid point of success of the last session or higher which is usually where training sessions that ended on a high note pick up. Sometimes the dog makes a great leap ahead in understanding leaving me wondering how they got there from where we left off. I presume both of these are true because I didn’t keep trying to get it right causing frustration for both of us. Pushing through to get something resembling success with traditional methods usually resulted in a dog that was less then thrilled with the next session starting, or maybe that was me projecting my expectations 🙂
Hmmmm food for thought. I have sleddogs and in training them I learned about putting pressure on the hard way. One day I was telling them not to stop and pee, not to stop and sniff, to go greet that dog, not to roll in the cow dung, not to… and all of a sudden they lay down on the path and refused to move. Making me look and feel very very silly… Making me realise that it is a joint effort. And that if a run is going as planned, cut it short. Especially if I have to brake a lot in the first couple of minutes, for traffic, for other dogs passing, for a tangled leash, they seem to loose heart and I have learned not to follow the plan but just take the shortest route home, give them a hug and something nice to eat. Next time is almost always a lot better. The love running, but another thing to keep in mind is build slowly in distance and not to ask to much. Because then they will be reluctant the next time. Spot has had some issues with a thigh muscle that gets sore and I really have to stay out of that zone because then he will loose heart for the next run. Sometimes a run is a little too long or heavy and I just stop, massage and walk home. Not a good note perse, because you want to learn them to keep running until the “finish line” but since we do not race it does not matter so much to me….
When man-trailing I know that Shadow can loose heart if the trail is too difficult. he really had to learn to persist to work it out. Asking a dog something that is too difficult, he can loose the belief that he/she can do it. On the other hand you want to teach them to keep sniffing. But you do not have all conditions in hand. One night we were trailing in an industrial area, when suddenly 50-60 people came out of an office block – very unusual at that time of night – and they trampled right through the track. Shad was very confused, tried to sniff at every one of them. So we helped him a bit. Then we did a shot & very easy trail afterwards. If that is necessary? I think it depends on the dog. Dogs that have a great confidence in their own ability & great focus will not so easily be daunted. Dogs that are not (yet) so confident and/or are easily side tracked, they do need succeses to keep going. At least that is how I feel and what I see in my dog. He can be soooo proud when he solves something but also really stressed when not succeeding.
On a slightly related note, not on ending but on starting: when I trail with Shadow I had some problems with getting him to focus on the start of the trail instead of first sniffing out all other interesting scents and send pee-mail all over the place. I started doing some easy obedience, like heel, sit, down. He knows how to do that. It certainly gets him into “working mode” and he is better focused when starting the trail
Jan C says
I try to “end on a good note” for the sake of the client. If s/he goes home feeling successful, the likelihood of coming back with a can-do attitude is more likely. And going home with a dog who did something right usually makes for a better day at home after the training session.
Charlotte Kasner says
I think that context is pertinent and that flexibility should always be a consideration. As noted, ending on a good note may be more pertinent to the trainer than the trainee as it may be an important aspect in motivating, or rather, not demoralising, a novice trainer.
In a companion dog training situation, this can always be translated into a calming exercise such as holding the dog in a relaxing “flat”. A “let’s chill out moment” is just as good an ending to a session as obtaining an otherwise pointless sit or similar.
Cindy Grant says
I Love this article so much; it provoke so much thought. To me it’s the harmony between the trainer and the dog is what matters. It should be flexible how the training should end, if it does not benefit the dogs then what’s the point in ending in a good note!
Anyway this is a great post, i really like this writing!
Halo Dogs says
Great post! A really interesting read. I have a border collie and I definitely understand the whole getting tired and performing poorly while still being so driven and focused to keep going. We have to enforce time out! I guess it’s a matter of knowing how different breeds work best (the whole Labradors needing 30 mins play thing) and knowing how your individual dog works best. Oscar (the border collie) is definitely the dog equivalent of an introvert and loves going off to sleep or chew on his own after working hard while our other dog loves a good cuddle! Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks, Patricia!
Jenny Haskins says
I think that the advice to ‘end on a good note’ means ‘stop while you are ahead’.
It is SO tempting to , once your dog deems to ‘get it’, to try again. which usually backfires — they do whatever it is poorly, and then the trainer becomes frustrated which tends to demotivate the dog. Not to mention that the last ‘performance’ in a training session is better retained than earlier performances. (but I cannot just now find the ref. for this.0