Learning From Mistakes

Rewarding your dog for good behavior, instead of punishing him for bad, will make for a happier, better-behaved pet. And a better life for his two-legged companion.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
2-minute read

It’s said that we learn from our mistakes, and that’s often true. A while ago, I took my first shot at making a flourless chocolate cake recipe by my current chef crush, Yotam Ottolenghi. I used a brand of chocolate that, while pretty high-end, has a slight acid undertaste. I figured the acid taste would disappear amid the immense quantities of butter and sugar the recipe calls for. Nope-o-rama. Mind you, the cake was good; it just wasn’t great. For Cake Attempt 2, I used an even higher-end chocolate (sigh) whose flavor was silky and creamy all the way down. Now we’re talking luscious.

Suppose that if, upon tasting Cake Attempt 1, my wife had told me what an idiot I was. That reaction would not only have put a crimp in our relationship, but also disinclined me from trying a fancy recipe again, for her or for anybody else. 

Old-school trainers are, frankly, a lot like my hypothetical nasty wife. (My real life wife is quite pleasant, thank you.) The dog makes a mistake – she pulls on leash; she jumps up to greet somebody; she gets up from a down-stay – and what happens? She gets a yank on the neck, or a knee in the chest. She gets hauled back to the down-stay spot and shoved into place. It’s true that with methods like these, many or most dogs can learn what not to do. But often, they also become afraid to try new behaviors. If you present them with a situation where they have to figure out what’s expected, they freeze up. 


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).