Working Through Frustration – Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

At the beginning of this week, I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about for this month’s positive pet training blog hop. I was going to dash off a cheerful little post about one of my most chronic training foibles–as I’ve said before, I really struggle with raising criteria.

Raising criteria effectively is an important part of training a shaped retrieve. Nala forces me to be creative about how I do so.

Theoretically, I know what to do–push-stick-drop, or 300 Peck, are old reliable methods, but I find these principles easiest to apply to relatively simple behaviors or simple duration exercises. It’s more challenging (for me, at least) to keep track of success rates for exercises that resist drilling–and with us, that’s most exercises, since Nala is quite sensitive by nature.

Anyway, my plan was to talk about how I frequently linger at a successful point for too long, wondering whether we are successful enough to push onward. I was going to paste together two unedited pieces of training video: one showing that I clearly could, and should, raise criteria on Nala’s left pivots in heel position with no props, and one showing the roaring success that ensued when I did so. I had solved the training problem, I was sure. All I needed to do was get that second video.

This is not quite that post.

Sure, raising criteria is a frequent flaw of mine–after all, why make things harder when Nala and I both enjoy it so much when I just stuff endless treats in her face?–but I think it’s more important for me to talk about how difficult it can be for those of us who are relative novices at training, but who often find themselves going it (relatively) alone. One of my goals for this blog is to try to offer helpful tips for other enthusiastic amateurs who find that their world and their training just keeps failing to match up with the instruction manuals–to note what helped us troubleshoot our way through the bog of behavioral variation.

So, in that spirit, here’s my confession: sometimes, after months of turtling along and failing to come even close to a finished picture on a behavior, I succumb to despair.

No, really, I do! I try to keep it pretty positive here, but, yeah: after our session Monday night, when I went into it absolutely certain that I had finally figured out how to progress our heeling–which was to just suck it up and do it, because Nala was clearly ready–and then found that that didn’t work, and I couldn’t get the video I wanted, I thought that maybe I should just give up dog training and focus on one of my easier hobbies, like knitting. Okay, more honestly: I cried a little bit because maybe Nala just hates heeling, and we should just pick a dang activity she actually likes already.

So: instead of going and sitting in a room by yourself and sniffling, here are some things you can try when you just can’t handle troubleshooting your training issues all by yourself anymore:

  1. Stop that training session. Just stop! Stop it. Get on the floor and hide your head and make your crying sounds and let your dog lick the heck out of your face. Then put the clicker or hwatever training paraphernalia you use away and go do something else.
  2. Find a little community of like-minded dog friends, and quietly, restrainedly if you must be so, confess your sadness. They will certainly be kind and encouraging. They will probably offer to help. Soak it up.
  3. Take a break from that behavior–maybe just give it a day. Maybe give it a week or a month or three. Do what you need to do.
  4. Keep building your skills and your knowledge. What do you do to learn more about dog training? Do you read books? Go to classes? Participate in dog fora? Watch training videos? I take online classes and participate in the associated lurker groups to stay inspired. Honestly, I’d be a pretty lousy trainer without them.
  5. Eventually, when you’re ready, go back and watch that video to see what happened. Maybe your dog had an off day. Maybe the pressure of whatever new circumstances you put yourself under–like doing a Rally course, or practicing formal exercises all put together, or training in a new location, or trying to get a video for a blog post–just made you behave really, really weirdly, like Liz Lemon with her own TV show, and not like a human being at all.
The truth is, training is one of Nala’s greatest pleasures, and the joy she derives from our sessions lasts for several minutes after they end.

I know that getting frustrated and upset doesn’t help Nala any more than it helps me. And wallowing so much that it causes me to think untrue things is even worse. It is preposterous to say, as I might have fumed aloud to my partner a few evenings ago, that Nala doesn’t enjoy training with me at all and we should quit entirely. Nala isn’t a very waggy dog, in day-to-day life–she wags when she greets humans, and she often wags her tail when she’s chasing prey. She wags at me when I get out of bed, or when I correctly guess what she wants and move to do it. But training sessions make her whole face and body brighten, and she wags almost constantly as we work together.

So what happened this week?

First we had a really weird heeling session. I attempted to keep myself straight, turn my shoulders, and just keep rotating left so that Nala would pivot left. I had every reason to believe it would work, and instead Nala got stuck, frantic, darted in and out of position, and finally just sat a couple of feet away from me, squeaking, before flinging herself into heel position and then darting out. When I tried to break it up with right turns, Nala lagged, left her head low, and was really wide–at least ten inches away from me. That’s not the heeling I trained! Worse, it smacked of avoidance and frustration. No good at all.

Well, once I was done sniveling, I decided not to work on the behavior that was giving us fits–heeling–in the next session. And if I didn’t feel ready to do so for a week, or  a month, or multiple months, that was okay, too. I wouldn’t touch it until I felt like I had a different strategy than the one I had before.

Then, I complained in the lurker groups for the online classes I had taken that related to heeling. My lovely online dog friends were kind, as they always are, and they offered to help.

I immersed myself in the class we’re currently taking, which is on Stays, and I planned a training session for the next day that only used skills from that class and from Hannah’s Obedience Skillbuilding 1, which we took several months ago. No heeling allowed. (That’s step one of “keep building skills,” by the way.)

Then, in one of my lurker groups, a friend whose dog is at a similar skill level posted a video of her and her dog starting to move forward. They were doing a lot of side-stepping, and that made me realize–maybe everything that Nala and I should do in heeling should be based on sidestepping! Nala loves sidestepping!

Then I went back and watched that video, and a few others, and I had a realization: we aren’t just struggling with heeling because I’m not raising criteria. We’re struggling because my handling is atrocious, and I keep walking into her space. When I try not to lean into her, I just act weird, like I’m an octopus who has never inhabited a skeletal human body before and isn’t quite sure how to hold it up–and then I walk into her anyway. Aie-aie-aie. And you know what’s going to fix that? Doing a lot of sidestepping, if only to get me out of the habit of taking off with my left foot and drifting into my poor dog. I also noticed that she keeps drifting back and going wide, which means that I need to reward more forward. Finally, I noticed that she gets more and more frantic and up as we train, much of the time, which means that I need to learn to do a better job of balancing our sessions between energetic behaviors and ones that teach Nala to control her intense and enthusiastic feelings (without completely dampening them).

A couple of days later, in a training session that I had decided would probably not involve any heeling at all, Nala started offering heel position and asking to play that game. As you’ll see below, I obliged.

So here’s this week’s unedited video. If you want to watch the whole thing, you’ll see my attempts to incorporate some new to us concepts that will hopefully help Nala and I learn to balance enthusiasm with control so that Nala doesn’t get frantic. You’ll also see a little bit of our silly toy- and food-free play at the end! If you only want to watch the heel-work sections, most of it is between 2:37 and 4:15. Later, at 7:20, 7:42, and 8:33, Nala insistently offers heeling!

Do you ever get frustrated with your lack of progress? How do you get out of that rut and restore your faith in your training? 

This is part of a blog hop! My favorite blog hop, hosted  by Cascadian NomadsRubicon Days, and Tenacious Little Terrier. This month’s theme is Training Confessions and the next hop begins on March 7th. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week.


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7 thoughts on “Working Through Frustration – Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

  1. The short answer to your question is “YES”! I imagine we all deal with it from time to time. I usually go to the internet to look for videos or consult one of my books, and try to figure out if I’m doing something wrong, or if there’s a different way to approach it. Sometimes I will even have to put a trick aside and work on something else to restore my confidence in both of us!


  2. Yes for me too! But my lack of progress is usually due to lack of consistency. One of the reasons it had been strongly advised that I use a training journal was to do a better job of slowly raising criteria by keeping notes on our progress. Then I forget to make notes, and I get frustrated and inconsistent. It’s a vicious cycle! The pets snap me out of it, though, with their love of training. I have found that they are actually excellent guides on when to raise criteria. They give me a “ahem, I already know this” face. It’s pretty great and reason number 7,823 why positive reinforcement training pets is amazing! Thanks for joining the hop!


  3. I usually don’t get frustrated with tricks but behavior mod is another story! Although I’m in the middle of training a handstand right now which is novel for me because I’ve never trained anything that hasn’t taken this much time before trick-wise.
    Which Fenzi class are you thinking of taking next term?


    1. Behavior mod has been known to try my patience, too–it feels so urgent, so a lack of progress is especially frustrating. I hope you put together a compilation of you and Mr. N training a handstand! I bet a lot of the time it’s taking has to do with the new muscles he’s building.

      I’m thinking of taking Shaping with Sue Ailsby. We’ve made a lot of practice, but I want to get really good at it, since Nala likes it so much.


  4. I’ve definitely succumbed to frustration with Ruby’s reactivity, relying mainly on management because with a dog as reactive as she is it’s just impossible to control every aspect of the outdoor environment. With trick training, if I find myself getting frustrated we just table that trick for the time being until I figure out a different approach.


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