“Plan A” Training

Peruse any dog sport list where advice and opinions flow freely and you’ll find these questions, and more:

What should I do if my dog releases himself from the dogwalk in the ring?

How should I respond if my dog sniffs around instead of grabbing his dumbbell? 

What is the correct response if my dog brings me the wrong article from the pile? 

Should I go on if my dog breaks his start line stay? 

These questions are all valid and we’d all be smart to know what our answer is before we set out to train or compete. But what if the answer is always the same? What if your response to your dog’s failure was always a recognition that it was not he, but you, that messed up? Not this second, but months ago, in training?

I am not suggesting you shrug and move on with the run; I do think you should have a contingency plan in place for failures in the training or testing phases. What I am suggesting is that we all put as much thought into a successful training program as we are currently putting into our failures. If knowing what you’ll do when things to right is plan A, then knowing what to do when they go wrong is plan B. What if we all put triple the effort into plan A than we’re currently putting; would that make plan B obsolete?

What I am suggesting is that we embrace Plan A so fully that we have no need for a Plan B.

plan A

Being a Plan-A Trainer 

A Plan A trainer designs a training plan that is complete. She does not put her dog in the ring until behaviors are properly proofed. She expects to succeed. Most agility competitors expect their young dogs to miss contacts and weave poles on a fairly regular basis. Most obedience competitors expect a similar frequency of missed cues or errors in the ring. In agility this expectation of failure is frequently paired with a contingency plan involving time-outs or ring excusals for their ill-prepared young dogs. But what if these trainers took all of the energy they put into that contingency plan and instead put it toward properly testing their young dog’s skills before putting them in the ring? Then they’d be Plan A trainers, and Plan B wouldn’t seem so important anymore.

The truth is, a young competition dog will make mistakes when first starting out. But rather than accepting them as normal their handler should take those mistakes as a clues that perhaps their training plan wasn’t as solid as they thought. Maybe a missed weave pole entry should signal a trainer to go back to the drawing board, rather than back to the ring.

The Utility level in competition obedience is the perfect example of this Plan B mentality we’d all do well to leave behind. Nicknamed “futility” by competitors, it is considered normal to flunk often, particularly with a Utility A (less-experienced) dog. But in truth competitive obedience exercises, when taught with a high level of skill, should be something your dog gets right more often than not, in or out of the ring. If they are failing frequently it’s time to evaluate your training; and that does not mean you need more clever and detailed ways to “correct.”

So what, specifically, does a Plan A trainer do?

  • Knows precisely what the desired behavior looks like
  • Plans her reinforcement scenarios to the letter, the inch, the very last detail
  • Recognizes what antecedents will contribute to her success, and arranges them carefully
  • Keeps her signals clean and unchanging from training to testing phases
  • Responds to failure with a lack of reinforcement, and a plan to avoid the same mistake in the future

So think about it, are you planning to fail? Are you designing your training plans with detailed Plan Bs and mediocre Plan As? Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate.