Telling Tails

Uh-oh, Oops, No, and Eh-eh’s

counter surfing

Uh-oh, Oops, No, and Eh-eh’s

This last weekend I had the fabulous opportunity to attend the Synergy Dog Sports Training Camp which brought together many dog trainers, dog sports competitors, and dog enthusiasts.  We were all there eager to learn how we can make our dogs lives better by improving our training techniques.  And we had three amazing, experienced and well-educated trainers to learn from; Amy Cook, Sarah Stremming, and Shade Whitesel.  At the end of each day, everyone gathered in the same arena for Q & A time.  One conversation continued to dominate the Q & A for each day: what do I do when my dog makes a mistake?  By day two, at the end of the conversation, I think we can all agree on how good it felt seeing three top dog training professionals being in complete agreement; why does the dog need to know?

Uh-oh, oops, no, and eh-eh are known as Non-Reward Markers, and they are meant to communicate to the learner that they made a mistake.  And let me tell you right now that they are entirely unnecessary.  Have you ever played the game hotter/colder?  Do you remember how good it felt when you heard “hotter, hotter, hotter” non-stop because you knew you were so close to finding the item and solving the puzzle?  Your response to hearing “hotter” was to move faster with more excitement, but what about when you heard “colder”?  When you were receiving more colds than hots, you had to slow down and think a bit harder about your next move and likely felt more pensive and less excited.  It is true that studies have shown using Non-Reward Markers do not prevent the learner from learning the new task, however, using them does slow the learning process down.

Why does the dog need to know that they got it wrong?


Well to start, they didn’t.  Our dogs spend all day every day studying us, our every move and sound.  Many of my clients are familiar with the story of Jude and smiling.  When we are out for a walk, if a human is in our path moving towards us, Jude will watch them.  If he gets just a flicker of eye contact, his body starts to wiggle in that Pitbull waggle way.  If they crack even the slightest smile its game on and he knows he has them.  Because of this ability to read even the most minor change in our body language, I think we are doing them a disservice by assuming it was their mistake in the first place.

An error is information for the teacher, not the learner.

So what should we do?  First off, we need to recognize that mistakes are a part of life. We make them; our dog makes them we all learn by trial AND error.  Our goal as trainers (yes dog owner, you are a trainer), is to set up the best case scenario for our training so that fewer errors take place.  When we are teaching a new behavior, like stand, we are not taking our dog to the park for our first training session.  Instead, we start in our living room with minimal distraction. Is the dog going to get it right every time? Of course not, there will be instances when you cue “stand,” and he sits instead. So what should you do?  I would say give a different cue entirely, something that the dog knows well enough and should be easy to perform, like down.  Did he do it? Great, give him a cookie and then try cueing stand again.  Did he nail the stand? If yes, then move on from the mistake and continue with your training session.  If not, then, to quote Shade Whitesel “throw some cookies at it and go back to the drawing board.” To clarify, give your dog a scatter of food while you walk away and reassess your training set up.

There are many reasons why they may be getting it wrong:

  1. The environment is too distracting; always wait for your dog to acclimate to new situations and opt into training before asking them to do anything. If they are not using their thinking brain, they can’t learn.
  2. You are not as clear with your cue (verbal and visual) as you think you are. Something you are doing is slightly different than the last repetition or looks too similar to another cue.
  3. Reinforcement history is too low. The bank account for this particular skill has more withdrawals than deposits; the balance should be at least 100 deposits to 1 withdrawal.
  4. Criteria are set too high. When you are teaching your dog to lie down, do not expect that they will hold it for any length of time. You need to build criteria as your dog succeeds.  Start with reinforcing the act of lying down, after many successful repetitions you can start reinforcing a 3 second down, then gradually move up from there.  Another part of the criteria is physical, can your dog physically perform the task you are asking of them? Maybe they need some more body conditioning before they can do it or perhaps they will never be able to do it at all.

But what about unwanted behaviors outside of a training session?

While a training session may end for you, it never ends for your dog.  Dogs are continually learning from you and their environment.  Let’s take counter-surfing, for example, and run it through the list above.


  1. We should set up the environment for the best possible outcome. Manage the situation by putting food away and out of reach, garbage cans should have a lid or be in a cupboard, we can also use baby gates, ex-pens, and baby safety cabinet locks so that the environment is not reinforcing the dog when we are not present.
  2. There are times your dog may be able to access the kitchen when you are not present; this is where teaching him cues from us, like “leave it” are useless. You will not always be there to say “leave it.” So instead we can shape his behavior and allow food on the table/counter to be the cue to leave it alone. See this great video by Kiko pup
  3. Reinforcement history for behaviors that are not counter-surfing is too low. I like to heavily reinforce a down-stay on a mat in the kitchen or at the boundary of the kitchen while I am in there preparing food.  If the down-stays bank account has 100 deposits, it is more likely that while I am making food, my dog will come in and lie down vs. an attempt to steal whatever is on the counter. See this video by Michael Nichols The Dog Guy
  4. Don’t do one session of down-stay and expect that your dog will offer that a month later when you are spending hours preparing Thanks-Giving dinner. That is way too much of a jump.  Work on it daily and use management when you can’t work on it.

But what if I catch them in the act?

It’s still not their fault so no need to correct them. Recall your dog to you, reward the recall, and implement better management. If the dog does not recall, then quietly approach, cue an easy behavior, reinforce that and move on.  The goal is to get you to see this as an opportunity for improvement on your part to help your learner learn what you want them to.

Let’s all be better trainers by using the mistakes as information to try again or reassess our training plan.  Error-less training is not just about avoiding mistakes; it’s also about what we do with them when they happen.


Amber Todd, CPDT-KA, UW-AAB

Owner | Trainer | Behavior Consultant

Embarking the Pet Dog