Should You Punish an Agility Dog

praise worksWe had the question raised about correcting a dog while training in dog agility. They understood how to reward their dog for doing good, but didn’t know what to do when they did something wrong. Things like breaking a wait, jumping off a contact, missing a weave entry or popping out of the weave.

The answer may seem easy to experienced handlers and trainers, mistakes are inevitable and an important part of the learning process and every level of dog makes mistakes. But, for the new handler it can be hard to know what to do when those things happen.

Here are guidelines you can follow then we have ideas from those that commented on the question.

Ignore it. Keep moving or go back and give it another try. It just might be that your dog does not fully understand the request.

Stop training and ignore your dog. Withdrawing your attention cuts a dog right to the heart.

Mark the mistake with a phrase like ‘oh dear’ or ‘wrong’ so that Blaze will learn where he went wrong. Withhold his praise and rewards. Don’t give Blaze a treat or throw his toy if he gets it wrong. Try again and if Blaze gets it right, he gets his goodies.

Halt the game. This would be a serious correction in our mind. If your dog is just out of his mind, not taking direction and doing his own thing, go to the end of the line in class or leave the building.

Praise. Be sure your praise/reward is of more value than what your dog is entertaining in their mind. Most dogs learn much faster when your timing of praise gets better and the praise/reward is of high value.

Drastic Steps. Crating your dog, leaving the ring or the entire event would be drastic in our books saved for those moments when your dog is totally checked out. This too could be a result of nerves and pushing your dog too far too fast. Do more proofing work and build more value into your rewards. Maybe take a step back and try some low key fun matches to build confidence in your dog before trying another trial.

Here are some great pearls of wisdom from other handlers.

Jeannekins says:

Where I train, there are no corrections. It’s all positive. If a dog does something wrong, it’s ‘oh, good try’ and it’s done again. When it’s done right, there is immediately a treat and lots of verbal reinforcement, pets, that sort of thing. It’s all about the dogs having fun and learning to like agility and the obstacles and let me tell you, the dogs love it and learn quickly.

Laura McClary says:

I believe the amount of correction (or lack thereof) should be based on the dog. If the dog is “soft”, then too much correction could shut the dog down, causing them to stress because they got it wrong. However, on the other hand, if the dog is not soft, then a stronger correction would be warranted. At class last night, a friend’s JRT left her owner’s command of “wait” on the contact,and went sniffing and exploring, totally indifferent to her owner’s call of “come.” The friend finally got her dog under control, and placed the dog back in her crate. The dog was not allowed to play if she didn’t listen to her owner/handle. On the dog’s next turn, she listened to her owner’s commands.

Ellen says:

I vote for not letting the dog get it wrong in the first place and reinforcing only correct performances. I see a lot of agility training that doesn’t follow that principle and have to think it takes those poor dogs a lot longer to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing.

My other observation is about reinforcing behavior. With “trainable” dogs (Duddley Do-Rights), this is easy – yes is yes and no is no. With some of my dogs, yes is boring, no is a win for them, human hysteria is a bigger win and laughter is the ultimate reinforcer. So in class, with these dogs, everyone rolls on the floor over “mistakes” and in no time, they aren’t mistakes any more, their reinforced repeating behavior. One of my boys learned to make eye contact with the instructor, then leap into her arms off the dog walk just for the fun of seeing her hysterical efforts to catch him. I have a horse that operates on these same principles too. Real pranksters.

So not reacting except to repeat it correctly asap seems to work better with these guys than any kind of response.

Ellen says:

Oh, my prankster is a very soft dog, if you define soft as devastated by criticism. He can only deal with positive reinforcement. And staying one jump ahead of his creativity.

With some of the dogs I’ve owned, in some circumstances it takes a lot more than a shout or a command to get their attention and usually those situations are pretty urgent (like they’re seriously trying to kill each other, or the cat, or one of the horses – my dogs are not pc!). I’ve also noticed that for the worst offenses, the ones we really want to never see repeated, some time spent “in jail” is the most effective punishment once we have the behavior stopped, and if we can pick up on the dog’s intention to offend and put them in jail before they do, that really impresses them.