Karen B. London
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Knowing When to Stop Play or Training
Identifying the moment
It's going so well, but how long will it last?

As our sons were playing at the park after soccer practice, my friend and I both watched uneasily. All four boys were getting along. They were laughing and nobody was left out. I said, “I wonder how long this can last. They’re hungry and they’ve already played soccer for an hour.”

She answered, “I was just thinking the same thing. It seems that it’s always when I think everything is going great that trouble sprouts up in a big way and I realize I should have cut things off already.”

It reminded me of certain aspects of working with dogs.

It’s a basic principle of working with a dog with behavioral issues that if you say to yourself, “Wow! This is going better than I expected. I think I can push on a little further,” that you must NOT do so. Every behaviorist and trainer has had to learn this by committing the error, but the time to stop is when things are going well.

It’s so often the case that people don’t follow this rule, with the result that the session starts to go south. I find this is especially true when working to help a fearful dog overcome fears or when dogs are playing exuberantly.

I mentioned this to my friend and her response interested me. She told me that she asked her mom, who is a preschool teacher, how she decides to stop an activity that’s going well and in which the kids are all behaving well for a longer time than expected. Her mom’s answer was, “That’s the moment. Right when everything is going better than you could have hoped for and over a longer period of time, you must move on to something else.”

Have you had the experience of letting your dogs continue what they were doing because it was going so well, only to realize a few minutes too late that you should have changed things up earlier?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Donna Hill | December 15 2011 |

One of my favourite sayings is "Too much of a good thing is still too much." These are exactly the type of situations that it applies to. Always try to end on a good note and leave them wanting more. All euphemisms but all so true! Applies with kids, dogs, performing etc.

Submitted by Debbie Jacobs | December 15 2011 |

My mother would know when the line had been crossed and say, "Someone's going to end up crying."


Submitted by Laura Monaco Torelli | December 15 2011 |

Dear Dr. London,

Wonderful article! It made me think back to my marine mammal trainer days at Shedd Aquarium. Ken Ramirez would always coach us to "quit while your ahead! End on a good note!"

And like all young trainers, we would go that extra approximation and the animal would get confused, not be food or play motivated, get distracted, or the next approximation was a step too much.

Thanks for the great food for thought:)

Laura Monaco Torelli

Submitted by Lisa Potter | December 15 2011 |

Absolutely! I work at a zoo and sea lions are one of the animals we do the most training with. It's so easy to think that you'll push it just a bit more when things are going well, and then end up going too far or asking too much. Better to quit then and just walk away.

Submitted by Carly Davis | December 15 2011 |

Your mom hit the nail on the head. I have told my training and growly dog students repeatedly in class that when you start getting excited about how well your dog is doing, you're just about to do something you'll regret. Stop there and skip the regret altogether! (Of course, this still doesn't stop me from pushing too far sometimes, even though I know better.)

Submitted by Andi Wulff | December 15 2011 |


I work livestock with my Collies and there is a great temptation when something you've been working on goes perfectly - livestock, dog and handler in perfect harmony - almost like a dance to want to see it again. Nope! End that particular piece on a positive note and celebrate your success and you will have a better chance that the magic will be there the next time you work. When you push the lesson, it may very well end in a wreck and that negative moment becomes your and your dog's memory of the lesson. If I still want to work my dog, I try to work on something completely different so it is a different lesson. (Easier said than done in the euphoria of the moment!)

Great note for all training. Thank you!

Submitted by Karen London | December 15 2011 |

Carly, the phrase "when you start getting excited about how well your dog is doing, you're just about to do something you'll regret." is so true! I like that way of saying it, and thanks for sharing it!

Submitted by Karen London | December 15 2011 |

Laura, wise words from you and Ken on the importance of ending on a good note! I was taught that if you miss your opportunity to end on a good note, you end up teaching your dog, "We're going to work on this until you get it wrong," which is obviously not an ideal training situation. --Karen

Submitted by Anonymous | December 16 2011 |

Oh, yes, I have been in this situation with my two reactive dogs. I am just so eager because things are going well...it has taken me some time to realize that it is OK to stop early. I started stopping early awhile back, but always had those "what if" thoughts. I no longer have those...I just say to myself "that training session ROCKED". It matters not that it was 6 minutes long. We ended successfully and THAT is what is important. Don't end with failure!

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