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Pointers on Setting Goals in 2020

New year, new dog behavior goals. I find that pet owners tend to have two types of behavior goals: specific goals, like improving the response to a particular cue, and complicated goals, like having the dog be calmer in the presence of triggers like guests, other dogs, strangers, or loud noises.

If there were three specific goals I’d suggest for most dogs, it would be a reliable recall (coming when called), the ability to focus on the owner when asked, and “leave it” (and related forms of impulse control).

For responses for specific cues, often you just need to put in the time and drill it. It doesn’t have to be a long chunk of time — a few minutes a day is all it takes to practice a cue for 10 times or so. Check that your dog gets immediate feedback (praise, or a click, followed by a more substantial reward) for doing the behavior, that your dog thinks it pays off well (great rewards, including food treats, toys, and desired activities), and that you are not making the challenge too difficult (start with an easy level and work your way up). This is the trainer’s mantra of timing, rate of reinforcement, and criteria.

For example, if you can’t call your dog away from a squirrel, start by practicing calling your dog away from the area where squirrels often are but when none are present. Really reward your dog for coming to you, and make sure the fun of being in that area doesn’t end. Practice before a squirrel shows, and shortly after your dog “recovers her mind” after a squirrel encounter, too. Gradually raise your expectations while keeping rewards valuable. Aim high, but take baby steps to get there.

If you’re looking at a complicated goal like a behavior issue, be sure to check out these background situations: health/food, physical exercise, and mental stimulation. Talk to your vet to make sure your dog is healthy and eating appropriate high-quality food (the right level of protein, fat, and sugars). Discuss adding digestive enzymes or probiotics as well. Make sure your dog has the chance to exercise physically in a fun and nonstressful way — avoid disciplined walks and standardized “reps” of fetch; consider going for a “sniffari” to allow your dog to wander and sniff (ideally, off-leash, or at least on a non-tensioned longline), play dates with socially-skilled other dogs (if appropriate), and food-dispensing toys. In other words, look for ways for your dog to be a dog, freed (for the moment) of the stresses and expectations of living in a human house. 

Once you’ve reviewed your dog’s physical and mental health, figure out what behaviors you want your dog to do instead of the problem behavior, and train those outside of the presence of triggers, if possible. For example, if you want your dogs to be calmer when guests arrive, practice “sit-stay” near the front door when no one is there, gradually adding a longer duration, and then the distractions of opening the door and saying, “Hi!” Then add knocking or doorbell-ringing at the start. Then practice with another household member standing outside the door. In your second-to-last stage of training, practice with a guest 15 to 20 minutes after that guest has already been in your home (and your dog has calmed). The last stage of training involves the dog practicing these new skills when a new guest has arrived.

You don’t have to do it alone. There are many educated, certified force-free trainers and behaviorists in our area ready to coach you and be your accountability partner. Contact a few of us today. 

Let’s make 2020 the best year yet for your favorite dogs.

Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, and CAP2, of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train, www.WagnNTrain.com, in San Jose, serves the Willow Glen, San Jose, Silicon Valley, and Santa Clara County areas.

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com

Main article photo by: Courtesy Jeannine Courser