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.



I’ve been turning this post over & over in my mind for a couple of days now, as I try to figure out why my retriever does not wish to retrieve—or at least why I have not yet been able to teach her. I started with a plan (backchaining from the release) & there I have stuck. I think all of the elements Denise mentions are present, compounded by another huge one—me. I taught 3 previous dogs to retrieve with an ear-pinch, & there’s a little devil sitting on my shoulder, whispering into my ear, saying it would be so quick & easy….
My (wonderful) instructor has been suggesting better treats, ie carrots, but, while I’m sure that wouldn’t hurt, I don’t think it would help much, either.
So far I just have not been able to think my way through this problem. I may draw up a new list, point by point. For sure we don’t have the skill, but I need to figure out WHY NOT.
Or maybe I should just smear peanut butter on the dumbbell.


Margaret, I’m not really sure what you’re trying to teach her to do (pick up? Carry? hold?) but it’s pretty clear that you have a skill problem – the dog doesn’t know what you want. So you are right; more carrots will not work (the ear pinch does not work because the dog needs more sticks; it works because you know how to apply it and it appears you are less sure how to move forward with a motivational retrieve). Maybe you should forget about whatever you are doing now and approach it from a new angle. I did a series of videos on youtube at one point; I showed ONE way to shape a retrieve. there are many, many ways. I hope this helps. (Day 1) (day 2) (day 3) (day 4) (day 5) (day 6)


Excellent post! I’ve seen so many people just try to increase the cookies or the tools… and forEVER I’ve realized that does not work! I love your step by step information about the reasons, and solutions, very nice thanks!

Systematic Problem Solving | A Time to Heel

[…] 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. Read the full article here: Systematic Problem Solving […]

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