Testing vs Training

February 25, 2018

To train:  Bring (a person, child, animal) to desired state or standard of efficiency, obedience, etc., by instruction and practice.

To test:  Critical examination or trial of qualities of person or thing; standard for comparison or trial.

Silvia heeling

One of the biggest problems we face as trainers taking part in any kind of competitive dog sport is to be satisfied with behaviour that is not exactly what we visualized when putting our training plan together but one that is “good enough”.  The biggest problem with this is that we tend to go out into our training area and put these behaviours that are “good enough” to the test without following good training protocols.  This often leads us to a place where we end up either having nothing to reinforce and end up with a demotivated dog or, even worse, punishing our dogs for their “disobedience” to the point where the dog either shuts down altogether or stops doing the behaviours that we want because it is in avoidance mode.  The result of this is that we go away from the session in frustration and often in tears having damaged our relationship with our dog and created problems that are going to take a lot of patience and time to fix.  Very often, rather than stepping back and looking at from the dog’s point of view we tend to put blame on our dog.  He’s “giving me the finger”; or he’s being stubborn; or he’s being stupid!

I’m not saying that testing behaviour does not have a place in our training.   Often the only way that we can find holes in our training is to test it.  However, the test should always be set up to test the qualities of the behaviour being trained and not to make the test so difficult and outside the scope of the training that the dog is bound to fail.  This will only lead to a demotivated dog and frustrated handler.

There are a couple of points that are essential to avoid falling into this trap.

  1. Design a training plan
  2. Know what YOUR dog is capable of and what stage of training he or she is at. Be aware of what tests that may be set by others during a group training session will cause your dog to fail so that you can either modify the test to suit yourself or step away altogether.
  3. Learn to read your dog so that when he becomes stressed or frustrated or shut down you can withdraw until you are both composed enough to continue.
  4. You are your dog’s advocate. Do not stand by and watch someone bully your dog.
  5. Teach yourself to recognise the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
  6. Learn about the science behind training. More and more it is just not enough to embark on a training plan without knowing why some things work and some don’t.  There is a lot of information out there about Classical and Operant Conditioning.  The cornerstones of learning.
  7. Don’t be afraid of going back a couple of steps in your training. If you do make a mistake (and you will make mistakes – we all do) do not hesitate to go back and start over.  Making mistakes is part of your learning curve but don’t obsess about them.   Rather than worrying about what NOT to do think about what you SHOULD be doing.

And finally, to quote Bob Bailey who has had a hand in training hundreds of animals and many different species to undertake complex tasks…


Putting it another way: You want to give as many trials and well selected and timed rewards as possible to shape the sharpest and most precise behavior of your choosing, within the time that is available.

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