Fixing training mistakes

Hey remember when I wrote about teaching the touch/hand target? And I said, “never ever let your dog use teeth?” Whelp, here is the story to go along with that.

Dog training fact: Whatever you reward your dog for is the behaviour you are going to get.

So I accidentally taught my dog that hand targeting = “Hey! Run over to me and bite my hand.” Not hard, mostly just a gentle mouthing, but since I often use hand targeting as a way to get my dog to say, “please,” for a ball, she’d usually be in a pretty high state of excitement, which meant that the gentle mouthing could quickly give way to hard pinching.

Kind of a big training mistake in which I rewarded her for a sloppy target (using her teeth instead of her nose) and ended up with a dog that bites my hand. Possibly the worst training mistake ever.

Not malicious on her part, she was simply doing what she thought she had been taught to do!

Luckily it was pretty easy to fix.

For a long time I just tolerated her mouthy, “target,” since it wasn’t painful and she was still essentially doing what I wanted. However, I noticed that she seemed to be getting less careful about gentleness and some of her nips were really starting to hurt and I was finally like, “whaaat am I doing, letting her get away with this, I need to train this out of her.”

The easy way would be so start in a calm environment and just not reward her whenever she used her teeth, and praise lavishly when she only used her nose.

However, when I made this decision I was at the beach and we were playing fetch and I was like, “hey, let’s start now! The most challenging situation ever!”

Luckily, it worked out pretty well, although my hand was a bit sore by the end of it. She definitely made progress and had an understanding of what I wanted that very same day, but it took another couple of weeks worth of the occasional reminder to have her 100% re-trained.

So what did I do?

  1. When she used her teeth, I’d cry out in annoyance and pain, and she didn’t get a reward.
  2. I’d insist she keep trying until she didn’t use her teeth, at which point I’d say “YES!” in the happiest voice ever and reward her. Rinse and repeat x 10

mouth-target
This photo, taken in March of 2014 when Betsy was only 8 months old, shows that even back then she was pretty sloppy with her hand targeting.

Pretty simple. She got the idea fast, but it took some time (we’re talking 3 training sessions per week for about 3 weeks) for her to undo months of muscle memory. However, her bites quickly became much gentler, and instead of crying out in pain I’d just say quietly, “no teeth please,” and not give her a reward. (I realize speaking random sentences to my dog doesn’t really make sense, but it made me feel better, so…)

My experience with Betsy tells me that my dog (and maybe all dogs? I don’t know, I haven’t trained enough of them.) wants to be good. And when she’s bad, it’s usually because she doesn’t realize she’s being bad. She does whatever results in pleasure (treats and play and love!) and it’s up to me to make sure that the things I like are fun for her, and the things I don’t like, aren’t. Pretty simple stuff! (She also seems to have some innate desire to, “be good,” simply for the sake of doing what I want, rewards or no rewards, but it’s hard to objectively make a judgment on whether I’m just imagining this or not 😁)

Ideally when training a behaviour you don’t need to fix mistakes like I did, but Betsy and I are figuring these things out together 🙂

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