Systematic Problem Solving

Trainers often say that they don't need to know why a problem exists in order to fix it; they simply look at the behavior and address it.  I disagree.  I find that identifying the underlying source of the problem is critically important, otherwise the trainer is very likely to apply the wrong 'fix".    Carrot trainers tend to add more carrots and stick trainers tend to add more sticks.

Adding more cookies or a special collar might mask some problems, but often the fix is temporary.  Remove the cookie, or the collar, and the problem comes right back.  Keep in mind that there are neither carrots nor sticks in the competition ring - the quality of your training, trial preparation, and communication with your dog is all that is left. Rather than relying on more carrots or sticks, how about figuring out exactly what is going on with your dog?

Let's take a look at how one might approach a training challenge.  We'll take crooked sits in heel position as an example.

1) Do you have a skill based problem?  If your dog only nails a sit when you help  (move your shoulders, repeat the command, tension on the leash, cookie in front of nose, etc.) then you may have a skill based problem.  You need to learn how to teach a dog to sit straight. A few points to consider are the placement of the reinforcer, developing muscle memory, and setting up well thought out and structured training sessions that are designed to highlight the issue for your dog while supporting her while she learns. Teaching your dog how to be right is a lot more valuable than addressing what happens when she is wrong. (hint:  straightening a dog who sits crooked is almost a waste of time - teach them to be right in the first place, BEFORE the butt hits the ground)

2) Do you have a motivation problem?  If your dog can nail a perfect sit when he is wearing a pressure collar or a cookie is sitting in your pocket, but not so much when the props are gone, then consider that you may have a motivation problem.  Your dog only performs when the consequences (positive or negative) are nearby and immediate.  This will not get you into the ring.  If this is your problem, you'll want to learn about fading reinforcers, competition preparation techniques (backchaining, interval training, etc.), and how to be a more engaged handler who does not rely so heavily on external reinforcers.

3) Does your dog understand that his correct or incorrect behavior causes the cookie or correction , even when they are not immediate?  If your dog sits straight when you have a collar or cookie, but not when the cookies and leash are sitting on the chair, then you may have a problem with the link between the behavior and the consequence.  If your dog does not understand the relationship between a straight sit and the cookie sitting on the chair thirty feet away, you'll want to work on this issue.  Interval training and back chaining can help you.

4) Is your dog scared or stressed?  If your dog nails every sit at home, regardless of the presence of reinforcers or punishers, but melts down in public, consider that your dog may be scared or stressed.  Some scared dogs stop moving and show classic signs of discomfort, whereas others start to run around and throw themselves at their trainers (if they have received support in the past)  or into the world (if they have been punished for turning to their trainers).  Scared and stressed dogs need time to acclimate and they need to trust their trainers to keep them safe.  If the problem is serious then a behavioral program is probably a good idea.

5) Is your dog attracted to the environment? Dogs that are attracted to the environment work perfectly at home, but are much more interested in greeting other dogs and people or sniffing the ground when they are in public.   These dogs focus outwards with a confident, upright posture, mostly interested in some exploration and interaction.  If your dog is attracted to the environment, then the first course of action is to more gradually introduce your dog to working in the world.  Second, ensure that you are an interesting person to work with (not just the food and toys; the whole package!).  Finally, you may choose to either remove the opportunity to work and earn rewards (mild punishment) or train and reward Fred (major punishment).  Fred is the imaginary dog.  I'll introduce him in a future blog post, but for now, let me suggest that training Fred can be a life changing experience for many dogs.

What I have not chosen to emphasize is how important it is for the trainer to be an engaged, interesting, motivating and positive person who makes good use of food, toys, personal play and social approval in training.  That topic will take a long time to cover. Maybe a book.  Maybe not so far away!

As you consider your problems and identify the root issues, you may find that you don't need very many carrots and sticks after all.



Denise, so much to apply in this post, thank you! Couldn’t find day 6 on the YouTube videos of shaping the retrieve….what did you do about the taking off with the pop can, something my dog would do, so fun to play with and crunch objects!


Denise, you have nailed it exactly—I don’t know how to move forward/problem solve a motivational retrieve. I was trying to teach hold & release, & when I couldn’t get through to her I didn’t know how to modify it or break it down further. I also was clicking too slowly, making it harder for her to know what I wanted, & confusing the sight picture by holding the clicker in my hand (I’m putting it under my foot now). And now she’ll stare at anything BUT the dumbbell when I bring it out—not being able to figure me out has become aversive.
Back to the drawing board. I will watch the videos—thanks for the links.
On the up side, a few days ago she pulled a windblown piece of plastic through the fence the other day, & brought it to me & released it into my hands when I called. It gave me great hope, & helped show me which of us had the problem.


Great list of considerations to keep in mind when looking for a root cause. The challenge of being able to correctly identify the problem is recognized in solving business problems nice to see a clear description of it’s importance in training. However I would add a #6 – Is there a physical, structural, or health problem with the dog? For example, if the dog only sits crooked in heel position and you ask for a style of attention that requires a head turn, then your dog could have a physical problem that makes that head or neck position painful. Once the physical discomfort is solved it will be easier to work through any lingering motivation, stress, etc. issues. Still, I appreciate the great reminder that even a wonderful tool is useless if it’s the wrong one.

Christine D

Awesome post, Denise— as usual, right on the $$!
Can’t wait for the post on Fred :)


Thank you for this post! I have grown quite weary of the escalating carrots and sticks I see so often in training. I often fall into the ‘everything is environmental’ or ‘stress’ head. Although I do not train for competition, thank you for reminding me of the specifics of inquiry.

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