A common phrase among dog trainers working with somewhat frustrated owners is, “set your dog up for success.” This means just what it sounds like. If you are teaching your dog a new behavior, or even fine-tuning old ones, you want your dog to have the best chance at performing the behavior correctly. This is much different from the mindset that ruled dog training for decades, where the goal was to entice your dog to mess up so you could correct them. In many ways, this more modern approach to dog training is mirroring what we are telling our college students these days. We want our college students to set themselves up to be successful in college, just like we want to set up our dog to be successful during training sessions.
Planning out training sessions so your dog is optimally placed to succeed is not as easy as it sounds, and the main reason behind this, is we humans have a difficult time slowing down when we think a task is simple. We are also great at believing that what we are asking of our dogs is simple. This is simply (pun intended) not the case. Very little of what we ask our dogs to do, comes naturally to them. Sure, one might argue that walking is something dogs do all the time and that heeling is just walking. This is true, until you break heeling down into its smaller components. We are asking our dogs to ignore fascinating sights and scents and walk directly beside us. In some cases (formal heeling) we are asking our dogs to hold eye contact for long durations. This behavior, heeling, doesn’t just mean “walk by my side”, it also means, “ignore your instincts to chase after that squirrel and walk by my side.” If given the choice, almost no dog would willing give up squirrel-chasing, ergo, this is not a normal doggy behavior.
With this in mind, as you go about setting up successful training sessions, reframe how you look at what you are asking your dog to accomplish. Many owners find this outlook helpful in that it provides a quick mental reminder that, while the task may seem simple, it might be anything but to their dog. So, here are some simple steps to orchestrating your next training session!
- Don’t train for the onlookers- every trainer is guilty of this at some point. I would like to say it gets better the longer you have been training, but I really think it depends on your mood the day of the session. If you are training in a public place, heck even if you are training in your backyard, onlookers are always a possibility. Be careful not to switch up what you have planned to work on that day because you want to impress the people watching your dog. Doing this will cost you valuable training time and will only lead to increased frustration if your dog doesn’t perform as you want him or her to perform.
- I have helped myself overcome this urge by allowing myself special training sessions that are for nothing other than showing off my dog’s talents. Who doesn’t want to show off all their hard work! I accomplish this by taking my dog to public events (i.e., fairs, pet-friendly stores, parks, nursing homes, etc.,) with no actual training goal in mind–other than to have fun with my dog and show off a bit. Now, I realize many trainers advise to NEVER train without a training plan, and for the most part I agree. However, sometimes having some fun with your dog while people watch is enough of a plan. Now, this is the important part: just because you are not training with a plan, don’t let your dog mince on some behaviors. If your dog comes back to you before you actually call them, do whatever you normally do in this situation.
- Have a training plan (exception, see point above). Plan out what behaviors you want to work on, and get detailed about it! Saying, “I want to work on sit,” still leaves a lot of room for leeway. Technically with that definition, asking your dog to sit once satisfies the criterion. Saying something like, “I want to work on getting Fido to sit flush against my left side after he performs the “finish” or “return to heel” command,” locks you into a certain aspect of sit. It is always better to be more detailed!
- Try to make training plans fun! Buy a special notebook that is only for training plans (You can find them online!) or if you are more techy, store your training plan in a digital format. Remember to make notes about observations, accomplishments, and things that didn’t work so great after every session, and review the previous session before you start a new one. Use fun colored pen and markers! I hated training plans until I got a special notebook and started using crazy colors. Now I find them ridiculously fun!
- Don’t wait until right when you want to train to make your training plan. This was my mistake for years, and I didn’t realize it until I was sitting in a graduate level Theories of Learning class. It finally dawned on me, that by waiting until right before I train to draw up a plan, I’m delaying what I want (training) by having to do something I don’t wan to do (write a plan). Not only am I delaying something reinforcing to myself, I’m also more prone to becoming overwhelmed, because suddenly what seemed like a fun idea (training my dog) seems complicated and messy. I now take the time to write training plans in the mornings and sometimes in the evening. It doesn’t matter when you write them, as long as you are in the mood to really think your session through. This way, when you are suddenly struck with the urge to work on that drop on recall you’ve been putting off for weeks (and we all put off fine-tuning) you will already have a training plan that only needs to be looked over!
- Change your mindset. When your dog “fails” to perform a behavior correctly, after they have successfully performed it three times in a row–do not blame the dog. Maybe you did something different that round, something you were not even aware of that threw your dog off.
- Resist the urge to engage in a “big finale.” This one has also taken me years to learn. Often when training a new behavior, or an old one, I would purposefully make the last exercise I was going to do with my dog more difficult than all of the other ones. If I was working on down-stays–I would ask the dog to stay longer than I had been, or I would move further away from the dog. If I was working on go-outs, I would ask the dog to “go out” further than I had before. This is bar none one of the WORST mistakes you can make as a trainer. Everyone who knows anything about training a dog, or any animal, knows the importance of increasing the difficulty levels of behaviors in incremental stages. Anything else tends to overwhelm or confuse. Now instead of your dog performing the behavior like a superstar and you retiring to the couch feeling like the world’s greatest trainer, what is more likely to happen is that your dog will falter under the increased expectations. You are already ready to end the session, but once the dog falters, we often feel it necessary to repeat the behavior. The problem with this is that, you were already entering the mindset that today’s session would be over. You were already mentally checking out despite not being aware of it–you will not be mentally ready to continue the session. This leaves you more prone to frustration toward your dog, which might lead your dog into a backslide in progress you’ve gained so far. It’s a better option to keep the criteria the same and set your dog up for success at the end of the session. You can always gradually increase your the criteria the next time. Bonus: end the session with an easy trick or command your dog knows very well!
I hope these things help you set up a successful training session that both you and your dog enjoy!