In this season of resolutions, would you like to focus on something other than your own behavior for a change? If so, I have a great suggestion. Take a look at your dog
It’s a new year and time for new routines. Whether you’ve got a new pup or an old tried and true canine friend, it is a fabulous time to assess your dog’s training and behavior. Now, I am not going to chastise you and tell you to train your dog more often; guilting people isn’t the best way to create new, positive habits. Rather, I am going to give you some tips on making the most of your training experience. That way, perhaps you’ll simply choose to train your dog more often because you are getting so much out of it. If you are enjoying yourself and seeing results from your sessions, you are much more likely to spend more time training.
Make Training Fun
Having fun may seem like a no-brainer, but very few people actually add enough reinforcement and play to their training sessions to make training fun at both ends of the leash. Most people separate their play sessions from training sessions in a way that leads both dogs and humans alike to see the two activities in great contrast.
My first tip is to smile while you train. Do your best to blur the line between play and training. Try not to become an order-barking drill sergeant when training your dog. Don’t see your desires as commands, but perhaps instead as requests, or signals you are trying to communicate to your best friend. A good way to break the stern-faced commander posture in training is to start practicing your new, fun-loving demeanor with a few tricks, rather than with behaviors you view as obedience or have-to’s, because it’s very difficult not to laugh or to take yourself too seriously when teaching your dog to jump through a hoop, roll over, or sneeze on cue.
Additionally, to help blur the play/train line, don’t separate your playtime and training sessions at all. Instead, integrate training moments into your playtime every day. Which brings me to my next tip.
Keep Sessions Short
While practice does indeed make (nearly) perfect, it isn’t necessary for training time to take up all of your day. In fact, the most beneficial training sessions are often very brief. Keep things short and sweet and, as I mentioned above, sprinkle little training moments into all of your fun, daily interactions with your dog. And by all means, if your dog performs an exercise beautifully, reward heavily and avoid your temptation to get perfect performance or practice “just one more time.” You will get more return on your investment of time if you train every day, for three to five minutes, two to four times a day and end on a good note each time. You’ll be boring your dog to death with repetitive and seemingly useless (to him) drills if they go on and on.
Of course, if you are training for a long duration routine, you will occasionally have to incorporate longer sessions, but even most sport trainers teach and practice in micro-sessions daily and only do longer routines a few times a month.
Break It Down
Many of the standard “behaviors” we’d like our dogs to perform to perfection on a daily basis, such as coming when called, are actually multiple little behaviors linked together to make a before chain that we then call, in this case, recall. Think about it; to come when you call, presumably your dog is at a distance from you, facing away. So in order to come when called and stand at attention in front of you (at the very least), how many behaviors does she need to understand and perform? To comply, your dog must: 1. Have one ear tuned in to your presence and whereabouts at all times, no matter what she is doing. Therefore, she must … 2. Be within earshot at all times. 3. Be able to disengage from whatever she is doing instantaneously. 4. Turn around on a dime to orient to you. 5. Move at a reasonable pace toward you. 6. Ignore distractions on the way. 7. Stand still in front of you while (8.) making eye-contact. You would probably also like her to allow you to (9.) grab her collar. Additionally, you may want her to (10.) sit/stay. There are probably even more ways to break this down, but you get the idea. Each of the behaviors mentioned above will be more fluent and reliable if you teach them separately first, before adding them all together. Breaking an exercise down to its smallest elements is a recipe for success.
Management to Avoid Mistakes
One of the biggest mistakes my students make outside of our lessons is to allow behavior they’d rather avoid or reduce to occur in the first place. It is essential to keep your dog from practicing doing things you’d like to see less of in the future. For example, if your dog is not so great at coming when called at the park, don’t allow her the freedom to do so and ignore you while self-reinforcing with playtime and sniffs at a distance. Keep her on a light, long line at the park while you are in the process of tightening up her recall so only the good, new behavior you are training gets training reps and practice. Yes, even at her weekend play group. No exceptions. Look at it this way: A few weeks or months of management done correctly will lead to a lifetime of reliability and more freedom.
Last but not least, take the time to reward your dog, frequently. Think of each reward as a deposit in the good behavior bank. When training something new, a dog’s bank for that behavior is empty. The first few weeks of training are time to build a savings account. Every time you ask your dog to perform without rewarding, you are making a withdrawal from the account. If you do that too early, or too often, the behavior bank will become bankrupt. In the beginning, you pretty much need to deposit money more than you withdraw, or you’ll never have any savings. Once the account is healthy, you can make occasionally withdrawals without having to replenish immediately.
Keep in mind that rewards come in many forms, not just food morsels. You may use anything your dog likes to do as a reward, also by asking your dog to perform a behavior before you “do the good thing.” The sky is the limit with these so-called life-rewards. Every pet, ear scratch, belly rub, ball toss, meal, and walk to the park counts. Don’t waste your valuable good times by giving them away, by making all the good things contingent upon following your cues, you’ll build relevance into your requests, and that is what training is all about — teaching your dog to want to do as you ask.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains for the SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Samo Trebizan