Silvia Trkman said many great things in her latest blog post on why we don’t always need to end sessions on a good note (seriously, you should read it), but I do have some reservations.
I think ending on a good note has its advantages even for those trainers who use only dog-friendly techniques and make training really fun for the dog. From human psychology we know that how the session ends can have a big impact on how we’ll remember it – if it ends on a good note we tend to remember the whole session more favorably than a session that went well, but ended with a disappointment. I have no proof, but I’m pretty sure dogs are the same. This would mean that too many sessions ending on a bad note would have a negative impact on how your dog feels about training.
As Denise Fenzi wrote in a blog post (this is part of an excellent series of posts on behavior chains): when we train we don’t just train behaviors, we also train a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to the trainer and training itself. If the dog is excited during trainings over time their CER to training will be excitement and if the dog is usually bored or frustrated during training their CER will also reflect this. So if by keeping training sessions exciting we built a great CER then by ending on a bad note repeatedly the CER could shift from excitement toward something less.
It also depends a lot on dog’s character and life experience. Just like the same event like loosing a job can impact two people in a different way, one searching for a new job with optimism while the other one wallows in depression, so the same event (ending a session on a bad note) can prompt some dogs to try even harder next time while it can deflate others.
With Ruby who loves to work and believes that if something went wrong it was all my fault, I can end a session when things go wrong and it’s no problem. I don’t think he learns anything from it, we just quit, I think of a new approach and next time he’s no worse for the wear. With Java, who also loves to work, but believes that everything that goes wrong is her fault, I try not to show her that things went south. After all, if she can’t get it right that’s my fault, not hers. I messed up by making the task too difficult for her. After too many unsuccessful repetitions I find something that we can do successfully, we do that and end the session – i.e. we end on a good note.
Maybe a part of the reason why Silvia sees this situation differently than me is in our personalities. When things go wrong she seems to get curious (from what I was able to observe) while I get frustrated. Java can sense my frustration, so I need to candy coat it with good stuff (making success easy) so she won’t think she did something wrong. Ruby on the other hand doesn’t care if I’m frustrated or not, he is sure it was my fault anyway 😉