Set your dog up for success by reducing frustration

Chantal Mills kneeling with her hands on a dog laying down at each side.

By Chantal Mills

‘Planned failure’ used to be a common strategy in the dog-training world but, even when successful, it can lead to discouragement and frustration for your dog, impeding its enthusiasm to learn. Photo: Mihai Bența, Pexels

Imagine if I asked the students in my English class to perform a play in front of the school after having only practiced a handful of times. When it was over, would they have a clearer idea of what not to do next time? You bet! Knowing my students, I would also expect that many would be left feeling frustrated, embarrassed, incompetent, angry or discouraged.

Setting them up to fail, on purpose, in order for them to learn important lessons would most likely have a negative impact on how they’d feel about learning.

This approach is not pedagogically sound, humane, effective nor efficient.

In the dog-training world, it wasn’t that long ago that we were touting the benefits of “planned failures” as an effective teaching strategy.

We weren’t asking dogs to perform complicated routines with little preparation, of course. “Planned failure” might look like asking your dog to sit and stay, adding an irresistible distraction, swiftly reminding the dog to sit then praising him for doing so.

Neither dogs (nor students!) need to be set up to fail for a lesson to be learned.

We set dogs up to fail in other ways, without consciously planning it or even realizing it. Take, for example, the “leave it” exercise, where dogs learn to back away from a treat instead of gobbling it up without pause.

I used to teach this in a way that looked a lot like a game of trial and error. Rover would sniff, lick and sometimes paw at the closed fist holding the treat, but the moment Rover backed away, the treat was released.

Dogs certainly do learn by making mistakes until they get it right, as evidenced by the thousands of dogs that have learned to “leave it” when I taught it that way. There is no physical punishment involved. There is no yelling. There is no intimidation. There is even a treat offered when Rover gets it right!

There is, however, a risk of the dog becoming frustrated and discouraged.

Frustration doesn’t help

You may be wondering how we help dogs become resilient if we are not offering them any challenges? After all, adversity is inevitable. Failure and frustration are an unavoidable part of life but they do not need to be an intentional part of your dog’s training plan.

If your dog gets frustrated easily, your training plan would include steps to build your dog’s tolerance to frustration.

Adding more opportunities for Rover to experience frustration, even if he recovers from it, however, is not going to help. Humane, effective and efficient teaching can be done without the dog having to fail or make errors in order to make progress. Make no mistake. The message here isn’t to protect your dog from failure and prevent him from making any errors. The goal is rather to focus on setting your dog up for success. Decreasing frustration and possibly avoiding discouragement starts with setting up your environment.

This might mean closing doors to rooms to avoid distractions when teaching a particular behaviour, or choosing a quiet area of your home where it is easier for your dog to succeed. When it comes to potty training, it may mean taking the time to teach your puppy that just being outside in the rain, cold or snow is highly rewarding. You’ll appreciate it when your dog chooses to do its business outside, no matter the forecast.

We live in the real world, where things don’t go as planned and where the unpredictable happens. It is impossible to anticipate and be prepared for all situations.

If you hear yourself saying “he should know this”, then it is too challenging for your dog at that moment, in that environment. Scale it back.

If you find yourself in a sticky situation that doesn’t leave room for success, your best bet is to manage the situation as best you can. The goal is not perfection.