Tips to Plan A Successful Training Session

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!

  1. 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.
    1. 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.
  2. 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!
    1. 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!
    2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!




Wondering how often you should train your dog? Ask Science! (Part 1)

When I first began training dogs, all of the books and trainers advised me to diligently train my dog every day to produce the best results. When I asked how long I should train my dog, I was often answered in units of time (e.g., one hour or thirty minutes) while the more force-based trainers advised, “until the dog gets it right.” Armed with this advice I logically concluded that I should spend an hour (or more!) each day training my dog. Thankfully, my knowledge of how dogs learn and dog training  has grown since those initial summer evenings spent tirelessly working my poor 4-H dog. Now, as I train my current dogs and advise others on the most optimal way to train their dogs, I have science in my corner!

What they did: In 2008 researchers looked into the relationship between the number of training sessions per week and learning in 18 Beagles. One group of Beagles were trained once a week with 6 – 8 days between sessions ( Sound familiar? This is how most weekly dog classes are set up), whereas the other group of Beagles were trained five times per week with approximately 24 hours (72 on weekends) between training sessions. The researchers wanted to test what effect massed training (training sessions five times a week) and spaced training (training sessions once a week) had on learning.

Every dog was shaped via positive reinforcement to touch a mouse pad with their front paw. (This might seem odd but that is exactly what the researchers wanted, it was important for the dogs to not have had any experience performing a similar exercise.) Of note, is that the researchers defined a “training session” by an exact number of trials and the length of time between one trial and the next (intertrial interval) which is different than how (most) dog trainers define a training session, in that, most dog trainers say a session is 30 minutes/1 hour, etc. For anyone who is interested, there were a total of 15 trials each session.

What they found: Contrary to what those old dog trainers told me back when I was first starting out, training once per week appears to be beneficial. Dogs in the group trained once per week learned the paw exercise in fewer sessions and had higher success rates during all phases of the training than the dogs trained five times a week. Overall, it appears that at least when learning a specific task, weekly training sessions result in better learning.

What this means for us: Those old 4-H trainers were wrong! Although generalizing too much from one study is always risky, further research (which I will cover in part 2) supports what these researchers found. So, when you are training a new behavior, it might be prudent to scale back on the number of training sessions you do with your dog. It also appears that the standard class schedule for most dog classes (once per week) is supported by science! Take that to your next class!

Note: This study pertained to training new behaviors and did not cover anything about maintaining behaviors or working to make behaviors become automatic. Many people in the performance sports world engage in mass training in the hopes of having their dogs’ behaviors and reactions become automatic in certain contexts. There is no research in this area, to my knowledge.

I would like to issue an apology to my  sweet American Cocker Spaniel/Beagle mix, Kes for all of those long, arduous evenings spent training during Nebraskan summers. Kes is pictured on the featured image of this article.

References :

Meyer, I., Ladewig, J., (2008). The relationship between number of training sessions per week and learning in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 111. 311 – 320. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.06.016

Dog Parks: Not Just For Dogs. Alternatively, How the Dog Park Has Made Me A Better Owner.

When I first moved to my current location for graduate school, I was firmly rooted in the camp that dog parks were nothing more than a gathering place for rowdy, possibly aggressive dogs owned by people who could not be bothered to train their dogs to sit. (Please read the rest of this post before you start slinging bags of dog poop!)

Fast forward nearly 3 years, and I cannot imagine my life without my local dog park, the dogs I’ve grown to love, and the owners who have become some of the closest friends I have ever had. When I first began frequenting my local dog park, I had just gone through a breakup, and because I’m human, I needed to get out of the apartment that seemed to only house memories. As luck would have it, a group of people were just starting to become “dog park regulars” and we hit it off instantly. Granted, it was months before we knew each as anything more than, “Geordi’s mom,” but very quickly the dog park became the highlight of my day, and all of us connected through our mutual love of our dogs. All of of this is not to say that there were not occasionally rowdy, just downright obnoxious dogs (with owners who could be described the same way!). Those dogs and people are always a possibility at dog parks, but you learn ways to recognize them and more importantly, you learn ways to deal with them whether it be physically removing yourself from the situation (i.e., moving to another section of the park or leaving altogether). This is part of being an advocate for your dog and it’s the most valuable lesson the dog park has taught me.

My 12 year-old Beagle, Geordi, is a prime example of the kind of situation that most owners warn of when they advise people not to go to dog parks. I would agree, were not for how on top of him I am and the fact that I take active responsibility for his possible behaviors. Geordi has never been a “merry go lucky hound” as the Beagle breed standards states the Beagle should be. He has always had a chip on his shoulder and he couldn’t care less where you are or about other dogs most of the time. There is one exception. If an intact male dog comes into the dog park, Geordi becomes aggressive. This behavior worsened once Geordi was neutered, and I have been in contact with animal behaviorists regarding this issue. As of yet, I have not found a solution. Due to this, if a dog I do not recognize begins to enter the side of the park Geordi and I are on, I always ask if the dog is neutered and then I explain why I am asking.* If the dog is unneutered and intent upon entering the side of the park we are occupying, I take Geordi to the other side, or we leave. My other dog, a 9-year old Brittany named Paris is the epitome of the low-key, friendly dog park dog. Out of the two, he is the one I worry about the least but I still keep my eyes on my dogs at the park and if things start going awry, I act. Being a dog park-goer has taught me how to stand up for my dogs and how to withdraw them from stressful situations without worrying about offending another owner. These are things that as an introverted people-pleaser were difficult for me in the past. On top of friends and advocacy, the dog park has been a networking goldmine.

I have become friends with professors at my university in a multitude of departments. These connections have opened doors for me that would have remained closed in terms of research opportunities and mentors across fields willing to look over my work and offer advice. Many of my dog training and dog grooming clients have also come from the dog park. They were friends first. In fact, I honed my dog grooming skills by grooming friends’ dogs for bags of coffee before I ever began charging money for my services. These people talked to other people, and my clientele base has grown.

Becoming a better advocate for my dogs, the friendships, and networking I have found through the dog park are reasons that I recommend dog parks to clients who I think are ready for them. There are always inherent risks when you place a bunch of dogs in an enclosed area, but I believe that if both owner and dog are prepared, the benefits outweigh those risks.

Please comment with your dog park experiences and opinions, whether you agree or 1235124_10153175103980640_1903458074_ndisagree. I look forward to reading them!







*Unneutered dogs are not technically supposed to be in the dog park but this rule is usually not reinforced unless an unneutered dog is causing problems with multiple dogs and a physical safety of dogs or people becomes a concern.

Pictured: My Brittany, Paris (yes he is a male, named after a Star Trek Character) at our local dog park.

Looking into What Your Dog is Looking at.

Have you ever wondered what part of your face your dog pays attention to the most? Good news! There’s science for that!

Researchers at the University of Helsinki are looking into what might be going on with dogs when they look at the faces of other dogs and humans. In particular, the researchers were interested in whether or not dogs pay more attention to a dog or human face that is threatening (i.e., aggressive dog face or angry human face). We humans (as well as other primates) pay more attention to things that could potentially be threatening and after all, this makes sense from a evolutionary standpoint. No species ever got anywhere ignoring what could mean bad news. Now, good ol’ fashioned eye-tracking technology is showing us how are dogs do this!

In research involving animals (or humans too young to speak), the go-to way to figure out what grabs and holds attention is eye-tracking software. In this case, researchers utilized eye-tracking technology to track what dogs focus on the most when they look at faces by analyzing the length of time the dog looked for and the order of where the dog looked first. This may not sound like a big deal, but whatever a dog gazes at the longest, is what is capturing the dog’s attention the most, and by extension, what is most important to the dog at that moment in time. By analyzing data from multiple dogs’ gaze patterns, researchers can begin to get an idea of just what your dog is paying attention to when he is staring at you.

How they did it. For this study, researchers clicker-trained 31 domestic dogs to lie in front of a blank monitor while resting their head on a chin rest. The dogs were trained do this unprompted, were not encouraged to look at the monitor, and held the position for at least 30 seconds. Researchers then projected images of canine and human faces onto the monitor in the hopes of figuring out whether the emotion of the faces affected what facial features the dogs looked at the most.

Three separate emotional categories were used: Threatening (aggressive dog faces and angry human faces), Pleasant (Happy dog faces and happy human faces), and Neutral (expressionless dog faces and expressionless human faces). Each face was presented to an individual dog with a break between the presentation of one face and the next.1 The order of species and emotion of the faces was randomized so the dogs would not be able to anticipate what might be presented next.

What they found: Dogs look at faces using the same strategies that we do. Dogs adjust how they look at faces based on the emotional content of the face they are looking at. Regardless of species, dogs fixate faster on the eyes and midface area than on the mouth, and the eyes are more likely to be what the dog looks at first. This might be because the eyes are such an important area for communicative intent in both dogs and people. Where things begin to differ between dogs and humans, is the mouth.

When viewing pleasant human faces, humans look at the mouth presumably because the smile is the biggest indicator of good mood in our species. Dogs on the hand, look longer at the mouth of threatening and neutral dog faces. This makes sense when you think about how important a dog’s mouth is in conveying aggression (i.e., wrinkled muzzles, snarling, bared teeth, tight lips).

What this means: Dogs make use of the emotional content on your face (and the faces of other dogs). This, as far as we know, is the first evidence that a non-primate uses emotional information when looking at faces! Which, you know, is pretty awesome.

  1. A break between the presentation of each face (what scientists call an inter-trial-interval) is needed so that the presentation of one face is not influencing the presentation of the next face, and so that there is a clear start and stop point for data analysis.

Tl:dr: dogs adjust how and where they look at the faces of other dogs and humans based on the emotion those faces are displaying.


Somppi, S., Tornqvist, H., Kujala, M. V., Hanninen, L., Krause, C. M. & Vainio, O. (2016). Dogs evaluate threatening facial expressions by their biological validity-evidence from gazing patterns. Plos One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143047                                       




Let’s Talk Canine Science!

Hello all, I am a graduate student currently studying dogs and earning a Master’s in experimental psychology. For a while now, I have wanted to create a place where I can share some of the canine research that is being done, as well as what science says about the training techniques modern trainers employ. This blog is my attempt at such a creation.

I will include here summaries of canine science articles I have read, including critical evaluations on their research design and possible implications for both future research and the canine world at large. There truly is some fascinating research going on with dogs in modern day science and I want to share this research and help you improve your life and relationship with the dog (or dogs) curled up on your couch.


So, let’s talk canine science!