Print this page

Handling Errors in Service Dogs

Making errors can be very stressful for a dog, especially one working in public where the spotlight is on them. They don't deliberately try to make mistakes. Training is ongoing and you and your dog are always learning together, no matter how much experience you have together. 

The big question is what you do when your dog makes a mistake? How you deal with the situation can either build your relationship or create confusion and degrade what bond you have. 
Sure you have bad days and your dog does too! And he is allowed to have them! He's not a robot just like you aren't. 

If he has made the mistake twice in a row (no matter how big or small the mistake is), it's time to stop, take a break and take stock in what is going on for the dog.

Start with Asking Questions to Clarify the Situation

1. Does he truly know the behavior? Does he know exactly what is expected of him?
2. Do you see any signs of stress? Specific behaviors like avoidance behaviors are very high level indicators while nose tip licks and averting his eyes tend to be signs of lower levels of stress.
3. Does he understand the cue? Have you put in enough repetitions that it has become muscle memory and he just responds to the cue as a stimulus (think can opener and cat comes running).
4. Is what your body cuing to do and what your mouth is saying actually the same thing?
5. Have you given him time to acclimate to the environment? or did you rush right in and expect him to work? Just like when you go to a party and take a look around to get your bearings before choosing where to move in, your dog needs this time as well. He needs to feel comfortable in the environment so he can work.
6. Is there something in the environment telling him to do something other than what you are telling him to do?
7. Have you given him the foundation for length of time that he needs to be able to sustain the behavior in the new environment? If he can't do it at home, he's not likely to be able to do it away from home.
8. Have you trained with the specific distractions that he is concerned about or distracted by? What might be competing for his attention?
9. Are you trigger stacking him? In other words, are there are too many things going on that he is over his ability (threshold) to deal with and think about what he is doing?
10. Have you prepared him to do the distance that you are asking him to do?11. Did you skip some steps when training in the environment? This can result in a dog that is confused what behavior you want or how long you want it for. This might be called the "miracle method" where your dog is not succeeding in other environments and you decided to just take him anyway and see how he does. 
12. Can you control the immediate environment well enough that your dog can feel comfortable and focussed to work?

If you can honestly answer these questions and admit that you believe your dog has been properly prepared for both the behavior and the situation he finds himself in, here are some ideas of how to handle error.s 

How to Handle Errors: 

A. Cheerfully reset him the first time. "That's okay buddy, let's try it again!"
A reset might involve taking a small step to the side and re-cuing the behavior, followed with a mark and reward.
Or it might be taking him out of the environment and approaching it again. 

B. If he makes two errors in a row, you need to ask him for something a little easier so he can succeed.
Decrease the duration of the behavior, the distance from you or the target, or move away from a distraction.
Set him up to show you what he CAN do, rather than what he can't. 

C. If you suddenly realize that you've asked for too much, reward your dog for attempting the behavior.
If he refuses to lay down, for example, but will go part way down, mark and reward him on the way down!
You will know when he's made an effort if he does the behavior but maybe only part of it. That's a great start! 
You can use shaping the behavior on the spot to get more of the behavior!

D. If he makes an error again, stop the session, give the dog a break and ask yourself (or helpers, or watch the video if you've been recording) "Why isn't he succeeding? What do I need to change so he can succeed?"
You may need to abort the that specific behavior and come back to it later after he's acclimated to the environment. 

For the break, and while you are evaluating what is going on, take him somewhere to be a dog for 10 minutes or more, then come back and try again but train the behavior in an easier environment.
Work at the edge of the environment or at the back of the room to see if he can succeed there.  You can move further into the room if he is successful. 

E. Teach the behavior to a higher level in other more familiar environments. Make sure he can perform it to a higher level than he will ever need to perform it in real life. You can make it fun to add more duration, distance and distraction. Use an incremental approach to prepare him well. Be creative but be kind! Avoid surprising him. 
Do specific set ups with specific distractions to teach your dog that he can indeed ignore the distractions and perform the behavior no matter what is going on around your team.

If you think of your dog's mistakes as information to what you are asking him to do, rather than his failure, then it's just that, information. Use that information to change what you are doing to help him succeed. That is how you build his confidence, trust and grow as a team!
As a trainer/handler you need to always be on the alert to what your dog is feeling and adapt what you ask him to do to what he is capable on that day in that moment. You are a partnership and while he supports you, you also need to support him.

Good luck! 

if you need some support to come up with ways to break behaviors down into smaller steps, creative ways to over-prepare him for specific situations, and generally help your dog succeed in public, contact us!
We can help you plan beforehand and also deal with the situation in the moment, real time by phone or webcam.

Related items