One of the most important rules in dog training is to set your dog up for success. Dogs learn best when they get to experience successes rather than failures, and the same can be said of humans. Success is addictive, fun, and a much more scientifically effective way to learn than failure. Imagine a GPS that guided you by telling you which way not to go. For people and dogs, seeing the fruits and dog biscuits of the labor makes it worthwhile. As a new year approaches, here are some tips you can use to set yourself up for success in dog training.
Since the majority of folks making a New Year’s resolution will make one related to physical fitness, let’s start there. I love the parallels between weight training and dog training. For instance, in both, only after you get form correct should you increase the difficulty to get stronger. If you lift too heavy too soon in the gym, you’ll hurt yourself, just as if you try to train your dog in too difficult a situation for his level, you’ll hurt his training. It’s easy to see that if you did bicep curls for five minutes a day, you’d get bigger, stronger biceps; likewise, with five minutes of dog training a day, you’d get a smarter, better-trained dog. Establishing the habit is the hard part. One tip I love giving new puppy parents is to grab one-quarter of every meal and immediately put it aside in a training pouch on the counter. That way, in order to feed your dog his complete rations for the day, you’ll be setting yourself up to use some as training treats. Even if it’s just a small pinch of food to work with from each bowl, you’re keeping your dog learning, and the more he stays in the practice of learning, the better he will be at it.
In everything you do, get creative. Learn to work with your dog with what’s nearby so you can train anywhere. Most dogs love food, and treats are one of the easiest and most powerful motivational tools you can control. But working with other tools ensures you’ll stay interesting and that when you don’t have food, your dog will still play with you. Walking on the beach, you can grab a stick and play keep away, stopping to ask your dog to perform a behavior before he gets the stick. In the forest, find a pinecone for tossing. On the city streets, try pouncing and frolicking. Wrestling, running, playing chase, petting, or even just using your voice in what I call “powerfully positive pitch” can all be used as rewards. The more you mix it up, the more interesting you stay, and the more fun your dog considers training.
One of my biggest pet peeves as a trainer is hearing owners water-down their commands with overuse. To set yourself up for training success, learn to adhere to the trainer maxim: Protect your cues. To protect cues, pay close attention to the associations being built between cues, behaviors, and consequences. With recall, for example, most owners probably say their dog’s name 200 times a day and only clearly demonstrate they mean something by it 5 percent of the time. It’s no wonder, then, that in every dog park, you’ll hear someone call his dog over and over while the dog ignores the call and plays. The dog is practicing not coming when called. Instead, make sure when you use your dog’s name that you always associate it with something good, and that your dog understands there’s a clear consequence for the choice he makes after being called. Make sure your dog is set up for success by having established a strong connection between his name and consistently positive reinforcements through these tips before using them in the dog park. Any punishment should be as simple as a timeout. Leaving a long line on your dog during play ensures you can consistently and quickly enforce a consequence. Create consistent cues with exact desired behaviors, and always make sure they’re paired with the appropriate consequences every time you use them, and you’ll create success.
The way I see it, dogs go through educational stages much like our own, with a stage that is like our elementary school age, an intermediate school age, high school age, and, for a few, even post-grad. Very young puppies learn the basics, and without the basics, they’re not set up well to learn the rest. In “intermediate school,” we teach them how to play nicely with others, leash training, off-leash training, and so on. Unfortunately, that’s where most people stop. And it’s such a shame. Without high school, where would we be? Consider signing the two of you up for some classes this year. The ASPCA has some really fun and very affordable classes like K9 Nose Work or agility that could be your dog’s major this semester. Sometimes it’s just as simple as getting it on the calendar, or adding a monetary cost that gets you up and working again.
As an added bonus, try making your New Year’s resolution about your dog this time, and who knows; you both may end up losing weight. I hope you find success in everything you do, and have a happy new year.
Main article photo by: Teemu Tretjakov-Creative Commons