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Handler Error – Setting Your Dog Up To Fail


She stood arguing with me. She’d had German Shepherds all her life, but never a high drive dog. She’d only had this one for three months, and had been trying to get it to stop reacting for six weeks. Nothing was working.  It was a smart dog. More than one experienced dog person had taken this dog and worked ‘miracles’ within two or three minutes.

But, well – as far as the dog was concerned its owner was nothing more than a pezz dispenser. If she held a treat over its nose it would focus and work, for a few minutes. But it wanted everything, and if she wasn’t going to get it for him, he would go get it himself.

We all have that one dog. Some are worse than others. I call my Ro reactive, but I’ve met others with working dogs who think she is too calm. It is a matter of perception. I unfortunately measure every dog against some of the ‘greats’ I’ve owned. Those dogs who followed 20 whistle commands, did a full day’s work, and then came to town with me. Ro isn’t there, yet.

The one truth I have learned that our problems with ‘that dog’ rarely has to do with the dog. We are the problem. Our mistakes cause the problem. When we accept that fact, and start to work with our dog, instead of ‘dominate’ then we will start to see a change in the dog’s attitude.

Who is in Charge?

Either we are directing the dog, or the dog is directing us. I’ve met many dogs who are great at directing their handlers. Even eliciting a correction can be a form of manipulation. Some dogs are very good at getting their own way.

Some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen are:

  • Holding a reward for the dog and offering it before the behavior is completed correctly
  • Adjusting your hand position, standing position, etc so that the dog looks like it completed the task correctly.
  • Holding a leash behind us, keeping it taunt, or holding our arm at an unnatural position to ‘trick’ ourselves into believing our dog is heeling, when in fact we are just leading it.
  • Repeating commands and acting excited, with a lot of body movement to ‘activate’ our dog.
  • Leaning forward, looking at your dog, or other body language that ‘cramps’ your normal stance in an effort to keep the dog engaged.
  • Fidgits, Fusses, Fiddles.
  • Ignores the dog
  • Correcting before the dog has a chance to ‘think.’
  • The handler is ridged, tense, their voice taunt. They are more worried that their dog will embarrass them than whether the dog has learned the trick/behavior.
  • Becoming angry/embarrassed by your dog’s performance.
  • Punishing the bad instead of rewarding the good.
  • Punishing instead of problem solving.

The handler is in charge. The dog is to respond to the handler’s body language, verbal cues, and have a certain level of predictability. This can’t happen when we are always trying to take short cuts and compensate. We are not teaching. The dog is not learning.

Most people think that taking charge means to micromanage their dog. When you do this there is no reason for the dog to ‘obey’. The dog just shuts down and waits for the next correction.

I’m often shocked at people who can train for 20 minutes without breaking a sweat. There are usually common threads these people share. First, their dogs do not have reliable obedience. Second, their dogs are easily distracted, and third, they cannot leave their treat bad at the side of the ring. They may have great dogs but they can’t put them ‘to the test’ in the ring.

Teaching vs Learning

It takes 5 minutes to teach a dog to sit, and 5 months for a dog to learn to sit in any situation, with distance, duration, and distraction.  Most of us teach a dog and then stop. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a person say ‘Oh, my dog has that’ when the dog clearly doesn’t.

This often happens because they reward the dog ‘after’ the dog has finished sitting. To be effective, the cue and reward must be for the action. You must capture the behavior while it is happening. Two seconds is too late. What often happens is that the dog finished sitting and your body language has given away that you are ready to dispense a treat.

  • Proofing is a lost art. If you are not proofing, then your dog is not learning.
  • Practice doesn’t make perfect in dog training. Relationship makes perfect.
  • Dogs do not learn from corrections. Dogs learn from self-correcting their mistakes.

Punishing the Bad vs Rewarding the Good

I do a lot of behavior modification. One thing that I see consistently is people who redirect their dog, get its attention, offer a treat and then stop. As long as the dog is quiet they sit motionless, waiting for the dog to react again.

The dog should be rewarded for being good. Don’t reward the dog for ‘stopping’ bad behavior.

This applies to the stay. Reward the dog for staying instead of punishing the dog for breaking the stay.


Recently I went to a friend’s training arena. One trainer worked on one end of the arena with his Mal and Spaniel. I worked Ro and Harley on the down and precision heel at the other end. All went well. Dogs were under control and compliant even when 20’ away.

The dogs were attentive and engaged. It was a lovely quiet morning. One of those mornings that make you happy that you are a dog trainer with good dogs. Dogs made mistakes. Dogs fixed their mistakes. Handlers made mistakes. Handlers tried again.

The one things that was quietly evident was the engagement. Engagement isn’t about us motivating our dogs and manipulating their will. It is about working and playing with your dog. It is about relationship. If your dogs won’t play with you then there is an underlying fracture in the relationship that no amount of animation on your part will solve.

It isn’t about you. It is about meeting the dog’s needs.



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