Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mountain and molehills

Where does failure begin?

That’s kind of a depressing thought, sorry, but it’s a valuable concept. Denise Fenzi spoke about it briefly at the seminar I attended last month and I thought it was worth sharing.

Let’s look at ring failure - executing an exercise so badly you do not receive 50 percent of the available points for that exercise. Most of us would agree that going into the ring amplifies every weak element of our dogs’ training. Small molehill errors in training become large mountainous failures in the ring. Most of us would also agree it’s easy overlook the implications of those weak elements when we train. We may have gotten so good at overlooking them, we don’t even realize they exist.

Here’s an example. You’re training your dog at the club building. You throw your dumbbell and send  your dog. He’s looking at a dog in another ring and responds slowly. He heads toward his dumbbell then stops and sniffs a spot on the floor. He quits sniffing and continues on toward the dumbbell. Someone opens the door and walks in. Your dog stops and stares at them. He eventually remembers what he’s doing, pounces on his dumbbell with delight and sends it spinning across the floor. Your dog finally picks up his dumbbell and slowly ambles back to you. You take the dumbbell and praise him for the wonderful retrieve, affirming in his mind that his performance was acceptable if not downright brilliant.

Now you’re at a trial. You throw your dumbbell and send your dog. He starts off toward the dumbbell but gets distracted by something on the mats. He begins to sniff. He sniffs and sniffs. He sniffs so much he completely forgets what he is doing. Finally, the judge picks up your dumbbell and says, “I’m sorry.” You come out of the ring and wail, “But he’s never done that before!”


I’m as guilty as the next guy of letting things slide in training. It’s so easy. A second command here, a do-over there. Just a little help. A little cookie to get the attention back. A little body language to help the dog remember what to do. It wasn’t until Denise’s seminar that I started to see all those little “helps” for what the really are: the beginning of failure.

Look at the dog in our training example: he began to fail four different times throughout that exercise and each time his trainer SHOULD have stopped and addressed the issue at hand even though it wasn’t a black and white immediate failure. 1) He wasn’t engaged with his handler at the start of the exercise. 2) He stopped to sniff on his way to the dumbbell. 3) He stopped to look at the person who came into the building. 4) He had a horrible pickup that could have knocked the dumbbell completely out of the ring. Instead of addressing lack of engagement, inability to work through distractions and poor technical skills, the trainer let it go because each time it wasn’t technically a failure to retrieve.

But when the team went into the show ring, it became exactly that because showing amplifies the tiniest of performance glitches.

So what does this mean? Should we all become obedience Nazis who nag and nitpick every tiny error in practice, whether real or imagined?

Of course not. Just be aware. Stop and think about the times you let your dog have do-overs and second chances in practice. They mean something. They are an indicator of confusion or misunderstanding or the dog making a choice not to perform. It doesn’t matter how fabulous a retrieve your dog has — he’s going to fail if he gets so distracted by spots on the mat that he forgets about his dumbbell.

Working Phoenix the last few weeks, I’ve gotten much better at identifying our “beginning to fail” moments. With him, they tend to come between exercises, while moving from Point A to Point B or while setting up, when he starts to check out or look around for things he might rather do. Being able to pinpoint those “aha!” moments allows me to address the molehills before they become mountains. It’s not nearly as easy as giving him a do-over but I am confident it will produce a more agreeable outcome down the road.


  1. Brilliant post!!! One of the common characteristics of all good trainers is this concept.

  2. Laura is right - this is brilliant. Should be required reading for every dog trainer!

  3. I think one of the things that makes Susan Garrett a brilliant trainer is that she pays 100% attention to these little things and immediately changes her plan for her training session to deal with them right then and there.

  4. Dog training is so logical. If we are smart enough to figure out the logic!