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:
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!