Training Tip: What Should You Do if Your Dog Leaves a Session?

You’re in the middle of a shaping session or practicing a well-known behavior … and your dog turns around and walks away.

None of us like when that happens – but it happens to all of us, and it’s not the end of the world. What’s important is how you react.

Your gut instinct probably tells you to lure or coax your dog back and ask for one more rep. That’s understandable: as humans, we like being in control, and we feel like it should be us – and not the dog – who decides when the session ends.

Ideally, it would indeed be us: ideally, we’ll set ourselves and our dog up for success, and stop training when she would still like to keep going.

The session your dog left before you ended it? That’s not an ideal session. Almost always, the best thing you can do in this situation is end it without making a big deal out of it. Go back to the drawing board, think about why your dog may have left, and set yourself up for success the next time.

“Allowing” the dog to walk away and sniff, bark at the fence, or chase a squirrel feels counterintuitive to many trainers. I also need to consciously make the decision to stop when my dog disengages. A part of me always wants to keep going – stopping now feels like I’m giving up control of the session. Maybe the reason we as trainers are uncomfortable with this feeling is a remnant of the belief that dogs “have to” work when we ask them to, and that we mustn’t “let them get away” with leaving.

It is indeed possible to teach a dog that she “has to” work any time you ask her to. Many trainers have successfully done so for decades. It’s not necessary though – and I would argue it isn’t in line with a philosophy of empowering our dogs, of giving them choice and agency and regarding them as partners rather than subordinates.

Work doesn’t need to be an obligation, and neither does it need to be something you are begging your dog to do. It can (and should!) be a wonderful privilege; an activity your dog LOVES to share with you. When something is a privilege or a favorite activity, we don’t need to lure or coax or “make” our dogs do it.

A few days ago, Grit left our TEAM 2 practice. We were working in the yard. Someone walked past, and Grit ran to the fence and barked at them. I picked up my mat and my scent tins and my distraction bowl, went back into the house, and left her outside in the yard alone. Grit had just gotten distracted, and that’s no big deal – it’s okay to get distracted when a stranger walks by. Neither of us had expected the person to show up. By the time Grit turned around to look back at me, I was about to close the door behind me. Her chance to play and train had just ended! I still wanted to do that run-through, so after spending 10 minutes answering e-mails, I went back outside, and we started over – without either distractions or disengagement!

Doesn’t “allowing the dog to end the session” reinforce her for leaving? The answer is no – not if working with you is rewarding! If working with you is fun, your dog generally wants to keep going – even if in this one particular situation, he left for some reason or other. Making the loss of the privilege to keep working a consequence of disengagement negatively punishes the disengagement. As a result, as long as you have set yourself and your dog up for success, are using coveted reinforcers, and aren’t asking for something that is too difficult, you should see less disengagement in the future.

If you see more disengagement in the future, you have bigger problems. It seems like the end of your session feels like a reward to your dog – and that, in turn, means there is room for improvement within your training sessions. Are your reinforcers appropriate? Did you choose a training environment your dog is ready for? Could you be asking too much of your dog? Do you tend to train too long? There are lots of elements you can consider and adapt in order to change how your dog feels about training. You can learn about some of them in this quiz I made:

Quiz: Optimize Your Training Sessions

If you want to learn even more about fitting fun and well-planned training sessions into the limited amount of time you have for your dog, I’d love to see you in my upcoming FDSA class: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World. The December term starts tomorrow!

Adolescence: Working on Opting In, Engagement, and Pushing Me to Work/Play

As a 9.5 months old adolescent, Game thinks the world is very interesting. So many things to explore, to sniff, to look at or roll in! People to greet, and dogs to play with!

I don’t want to correct my dogs for lack of attention – but I do want them to give me 100% when we’re working: we’re either off duty, or we’re ON. And on means ON in a the-world-around-us-ceases-to-exist kind of way; only me and my dog and whatever it is we are doing together. That’s the kind of attention I give to my dog when we work or play, and that’s the kind of attention I want in return. No halfhearted checking in with me and then going back to sniffing the ground in between reps!

With a puppy, it’s easy to overwhelm the environment with food or toys. As the dog gets older and more independent, this gets more difficult. Eventually, it won’t work anymore unless you have a naturally handler-focused dog (Phoebe is an example of a dog like this). This is the point where people will often add corrections to the picture: work with me – get rewarded. Lose focus – receive a correction. This works well enough, but I don’t want to train this way. It doesn’t seem fair: what I’m asking of my dog isn’t “natural.” Tuck-Sitting, heeling, fold-back-downing, retrieving stuff on cue while ignoring all environmental temptations … It’s not our dogs who want to perform perfect heeling patterns; it’s us – the human on the other end of the leash. Correcting a dog for being interested in something that is inherently more interesting to dogs – like looking at the cat walking past the training field or sniffing – doesn’t seem fair to me.

I still want that perfect state of ONness, focus, and engagement though. So I need a different strategy – one that relies neither on corrections nor on overwhelming the environment with my rewards!

Game finds the environment very interesting. I could already tell she was environmentally focused when I got her at 10 weeks of age. Even when she was a puppy, I made an effort to not overwhelm the environment with my reinforcers, but wait till she asked to work or play. Game is a working-line Malinois. Enjoying work is in her genes, so I didn’t doubt that I would get what I wanted if I was just patient and set her up for success.

At 9.5 months of age, Game’s environmental tendencies have been flaring up again. (As they should – any decent adolescent will challenge their human to be creative and become a better handler.)

Game is highly confident, highly social, nose driven, and interested in everything and everyone. Of course, that makes the world pretty exciting, and working away from home comparatively boring! Here’s what I’ve been doing.

The Set-Up

  •  I imagine a square or circle of 6 to 10 meters in diameter. That’s the area Game will get to explore on leash.
  •  I set my timer to 15 minutes. If after 15 minutes of acclimating, Game hasn’t asked me to work, I’ll end the session, and put her back in the car.
  •  I walk her into my imaginary square or circle, and keep walking her around this area. I want to give her an opportunity to sniff to her heart’s content, to look around, to move her body. If she pulls on the leash, I’ll stop, and if she is about to step out of my imaginary square or circle, I’ll stop her with the help of the leash.
    The reason I’m walking is that I know if I stood still or sat, Game would engage me before she was ready. Sitting used to work very well when she was a puppy, but now that she’s a little older, I’ve found walking her around to be the better strategy. Otherwise, she will ask for work too soon, and likely disengage during work. In order to avoid this, we stay in motion.
  •  There are two ways Game can ask me to work: she can sit and look at me, or she can make eye contact while walking and keep up her eye contact for at least 4 steps. The moment she does one of these two things, the game is ON, and we start our ritual.

The Structure of Our Engagement/Play/Work Sessions Away from Home

Our current ritual is personal play (play without food or toys) – food play/training – toy play/training – food play/training – toy play/training – trade the toy for food (cue: “Let’s trade!”) – end the session. From the moment Game asks to work by sitting or making eye contact for 4 seconds until the moment I end the session, I expect 100% of her attention. I make sure I set her up for success by keeping the length of our sessions realistic. If I were in a cooler climate, I’d probably use whatever remained of the 15 minutes my timer was set to for play and training. That way, the sooner my dog asked to work, the longer the fun part would be. Here, in the hot and humid Thai summer, I end the session after a few minutes. Especially when playing tug, I’ll be all sweaty and tired after just a few minutes! Even if Game could keep having fun, I wouldn’t be able to keep up much longer.

For now, I keep all “Ask to work” sessions separate from walks, hikes, and exploration/just-be-a-dog field trips. I want it to be as clear as possible that during an “Ask for work!” session, there are only two options: walk around in a boring square or circle, or work and play and have fun with me. If I want to take Game on an off-leash walk in the same area I want to work, I’ll just put her back in the car for a few minutes in between the work and the leisure part of our field trip.

This is what it looks like at the agility field. Behind my camera, there’s a guy watching us and a dog in a crate – further distractions!

Can you see the difference between the acclimation part and the “Ask to Work!” part? Both last approximately 4 minutes. Game hardly ever looks at me during acclimation, and she never takes her attention off me while we are working/playing. I gave her the time she needed – and when she was ready, she was all in!

In more exciting places, there will be times at first when we acclimate for 15 minutes and then go back home. That’s okay. With an adolescent, being out in public is not really about what I train or work on. It’s all about shaping the mindset I want! I won’t accept any less than 100% engagement, and it’s up to Game to decide that she’s ready to give me these 100%. I am laying the foundation for a dog who will love to work in public later in life. Right now, it is secondary whether we actually get any “work” done or not.

Here is a session at the parking lot of a big supermarket. Note how quickly Game asks me to work! (Ugh, I’m not wearing the right pants for putting the toys back into my pocket, which is a little annoying and interrupts the flow of our session.) We’ve been at this parking lot three times in the last three weeks or so. The first time, Game acclimated for 15 minutes without looking at me at all, and then we went back home. The second time, she acclimated for about six or seven minutes, and then we had a perfect play session. This time, acclimation only takes 17 seconds before Game starts pushing me to work by means of initiating enthusiastic personal play!

Tesco Parking Lot Sam Phran; Game almost 10 months:

This is huge and really good. However, there are two tiny lapses of attention in this 4-minute play and training session. They are small, but they are there (can you spot them?). I’ll try especially hard to not have any lapses of attention the next time we go there!

Here’s the play-by-play:

00:38 Out of the personal play, I ask for a sit and reward with toy play. The sit leads us into the first toy play section.
00:49 “Switch!” (one of the reinforcement/toy play protocols we’re working on)
01:00 Switch!
01:13: Aus! (Out cue, rewarded with food.) Now we’re entering the first food play/training portion of our session.
01:33 Game struggles with her fold-back downs in this environment and in this arousal state. That’s okay – it’s information that I need to work on this some more.
01:57-02:05 I cue “Platz!” (down), reward with food in position (marker cue “Good!”), and then reward with a game of tug (marker cue “Tug!”). This leads us into the second toy play/training part of today’s session.
Note that it’s always important to me that Game voluntarily brings back the toy, and pushes it into me. I want her to insist on playing – never the other way round!
00:53 Out cue, automatic sit, food as a reinforcer … And we’re in the second food play/training part of our session.
02:47-03:51 Down cue rewarded with food in position (marker cue “Good!”); staying down gets rewarded by a throw of the tug toy (marker cue “Chase!”). We’re back in the last toy play part of the session.
04:27 “Let’s trade!” followed by food sprinkled on the ground. This is our end ritual.

Training notes to self – pay special attention to the following things next time:

  • Wear pants or jacket where it’s quick and easy to hide the toys during food play parts of the session.
  • Make sure Game acclimates for at least 30 seconds – this may avoid the tiny lapses of attention during work.
  • Make sure there’s no obstacle behind her when asking for a down – it might make it harder for her.