Predictions and Preparations
The biggest difference between an experienced trainer and a new trainer is the concurrent awareness of both the goals in training, and the many things that can go wrong along the way. If you predict things that might go wrong, perhaps you can prevent them. Sometimes you don’t want to prevent all problems because they actually are part of the learning process, but you have to be ready for that moment so that you can identify a mistake, and get the dog back on track.
As you train individual skills, remember that at some point your dog will refuse the cue. What will you do about that? A common question in training discussions is “What is your correction for (fill in the blank)?” If that hasn't been thought through prior to the error, and there is nothing that can be effectively done at that moment without a lot of frustration and confusion from dog and trainer alike. So know that mistakes or distractions WILL come, and structure your training of the skills so that by the time you are finished with a skill, the dog will be aware that it’s a command rather than a request, and will know how to respond to your planned correction and understand what it is, how to minimize his exposure to it, and won’t see it as a random act of handler temper or weirdness. For example, adding collar pressure WITH a food or toy lure during the last part of teaching the sit or down skill is part of the teaching process. It introduces the dog to another cue that is mildly annoying; but it's a cue that allows you to fade the lure away, and it's a cue that becomes a correction for failure to respond later on. It works as a correction BECAUSE it is mildly annoying compared to no pressure at all, and the dog is willing to do what he can to minimize it or prevent it from happening. But because it was conditioned as part of a cue set and associated with immediate rewards in addition to its disappearance, the dog does not fear it. For formal training, it is the correction I use for most skills, and it is built in to the learning process for the dog. Review this video for more information on the use of collar pressure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TwjsMTz4Ts
When errors happen in larger sequences, consider exactly WHAT the error is and consider how you decide to apply corrections. For example, let’s say that your dog knows how to retrieve a dumbbell, and you want to proof the retrieve. So you place a distraction or two slightly off the line of travel to the dumbbell’s planned location, toss the dumbbell, send the dog, and on the way he veers off course and pauses to investigate the distraction. What is the actual error? Some will say it’s a failure to retrieve, and will administer corrections that center around the dumbbell. I prefer to consider the error to be falling for the temptation, and I administer a correction to get the dog away from the distraction and help him see that as a poor choice, and then by contrast make focusing on the dumbbell and getting there clearly a happier choice. For my dogs, that sequence would be "No!", followed by me walking to the dog and using the collar to guide him away from the distraction. Then I'd point out the dumbbell, repeat my fetch command, and release the collar as soon as I see the dog try to move the correct direction. Since the dog told me so clearly that he was tempted by the distraction, I want to repeat the challenge with better preparation. So I would put the dog on a flexi leash, leave him on a stay, and go and stand past the distraction and closer to the dumbbell myself so that I can literally show the dog where I want him to focus his efforts. Then I'd repeat my retrieve command, and be ready to use the leash to stop the dog if he veers toward the distraction and apply guidance in the direction of the dumbbell. We'd repeat that until the dog showed no inclination to do anything other than retrieve the dumbbell., and then I'd try it again from a more formal set up with the dog next to me to start the exercise.
How you decide to approach that sort of error will depend on how you trained your dog, and what you believe the dog will learn from the correction you choose. Some folks have dogs who are avid retrievers most of the time and really have never needed an actual failure-to-retrieve correction, so there is none installed. Some folks are working with dogs for whom early retrieve training went badly sideways, and they’ve spent a lot of time and effort convincing their dogs that dumbbells are not evil. In either case, addressing the distraction as the bad thing rather than the retrieve would be a safer bet for maintaining the dog’s good attitude about the dumbbell.
How do you address heeling errors? Trainers tend to think about lagging, forging, or moving wide, and consider measures that bring the dogs back into the correct position. But are those incorrect positions really the problem, or is it lack of attention to a heel target, or lack of perception of a target to follow in the first place? If the dog is not paying attention and putting effort into sticking to heel position, nothing you do to move the dog is really going to fix the underlying problem; you’re just going to make the general vicinity next to you chronically annoying.
Expand that thought process to all of the exercises you are currently training. Additionally, think about your dog. Is he an honest dog who generally puts in a lot of good effort and intention and just makes occasional errors, or is he a busy body who is always looking around for amusement outside of the activity with you? An honest dog will be responsive to verbal mistake markers and generally try harder. One with less of a work ethic may need much more direct on-leash work to interrupt their day dreams and ensure that he cannot ignore you. (And probably that dog needs a ton more work on randomization of requirements and attention proofing in general. Dogs who think they have memorized a pattern are more likely to let their brainwaves drift. Remember to TRAIN THE DOG, not just practice rote exercises!)
Prior to starting any training session, think about your most recent training. Review errors that happened and repeated. If they happened before, they probably will happen again, unless you prepare for them and are able to nip them in the bud. If you are proactive, you will see progress. If you are always late on a correction after the fact, and never succeed at showing the dog an alternative choice at the critical moment, you will spend a lot of time on plateaus. Plan for progress!