The Power of A Plan!

All to often, we go into training our dog with great expectations of being able to perform a behavior in OUR idea of the perfect scenario…difficult distractions, high speed response, long-lasting duration, etc. The problem being, that a huge percentage of pet owners expect that once the dog understands a behavior, it should be able to perform it in any location at any time. So are some of you saying, “Well that’s not me…I don’t expect that!” Then please read on.

An example would be: I teach my dog to perform a SIT in front of me in my dog training class. We practice in my living room, we practice by the treat basket when we come in for a walk, we practice amongst the other dogs in training class. However, when I ask my dog to SIT next to me at the cash register when I’m checking out at the local pet store or out the door before we leave a building, my dog is not performing. Why is this? I thought he knew it!

The answer is that dog’s do not Generalize things well, like we do. The act of training a dog is contextual, and you must practice in similar scenarios to be able to eventually perform in the context you are aiming for. So in the example above, the SIT cue has been practiced, but there was no mention of the dog being trained to SIT next to the owner. Was this practiced? Or in these type of distracting situations. Sure, other dog’s bouncing around you in class makes for a heavy distraction, but so is the person in line behind you that wants to pet your dog or the squirrel foraging in your front yard when you go to open the door for a walk! If these situations are never practiced then it would be extremely difficult for your dog to generalize what he has learned into these scenarios without some level of practice…so this is where you come in!

To achieve these high distraction scenarios you have to go in with a game plan. You don’t want to go into it with the “I’ll just try it and hope for the best” tactic. You might eventually succeed, but I promise you that your training time for the behavior you are trying to achieve will be unbelievably long and drawn out, paired with days of frustration between you and your dog. Why you ask? Because you didn’t break down the small steps it takes to achieve that big, fat goal. So you are most likely failing in situations just as much, if not more, than you are succeeding!

So we need to set our dogs up for success. Get your pen and paper, because writing your steps down is the most important and integral part of understanding what you need to do to achieve those might goals of yours. Yep, this is a step hardly anyone wants to do. Why? No self gratification. We don’t get to play with the dog. We need to put our thinking caps on, so it almost feels like work. But trust me, the more you get your game plan together before you bring the dog out, the more behaviors you will be able to achieve in a quicker amount of time and the more enjoyable the learning experience will be because you will both be succeeding in your practices more than you are failing!

OK, so now you are motivated to make a plan. You ask, “What the heck am I planning?” Let’s start simple!

Start with a list of motivators. These would be your primary reinforcers such as food, toys, playtime, etc. I make a list of about 10 or so. then I rank each motivator from 1 to 10. 1 being the low end and 10 being my highest valued motivator. The thing my dog will work for during his hardest distractions. Not sure which is a higher motivator? Try putting two different motivators in each hand when you are practicing a skill. Which is your dog working for? This is a higher value motivator to the dog and should be noted as such. Defining your reinforcements in order of importance to your dog is essential when you start adding distractions. YOUR REINFORCER SHOULD ALWAYS BE MORE REWARDING TO YOUR DOG THAN THE DISTRACTION YOU ARE TRYING TO CONQUER.

Now that we have that defined these things, it’s time for your next crucial list! Pick a behavior that you are trying to teach your dog to handle during more difficult situations. Just one behavior at a time please! Make 4 different columns… one labeled EASY, one labeled MODERATE, one DIFFICULT and one REALLY HARD. The idea of this list is to break down each scenario that you are in and gradually increasing the difficulty level so you are setting your dog up for success. In each column be as specific as possible. Take into consideration all the things around your dog that might make the distraction Easier or Harder. Weather, Proximity from a heavy distractor, ,movement of a distraction (such as a squirrel sitting in the tree versus a squirrel running up a tree), background noises, etc. These will all be factors in producing your list.

So an example might be this. I am practicing my SIT command again. If we just add proximity to a distractor, In the EASY category I can get my dog to sit in the living room, just me the dog and the TV on. In the MODERATE category, she might be able to sit outside in my backyard with a neighbors dog barking 4 houses down, but out of sight. At the DIFFICULT level she can sit when a dog is 50 feet away walking towards us on a walk and at the REALLY HARD level she sits when a dog friend she knows is walking towards us in the pet store 5 feet away and looks like she wants to play.

You can have as many situations in each category as you can think of. The more the better. Your definitions will become clearer the more situations you define in your practice environments.

Once you have your list, start with the EASY section. Make sure your dog is succeeding with this section at least 80% of the time before you move on to MODERATE. When you perform 80% of the time at the MODERATE level move on to DIFFICULT, and so on.

One of the biggest issues when training dogs is that many owners jump straight from the EASY section to the REALLY HARD section without even knowing it because they didn’t write down a plan. Some researchers have said that 90% of all learning takes place in the MODERATE and DIFFICULT categories and these are the sections we are most prone to skip past!

So while it might take a little extra time and effort on your part in the beginning, a well thought out training plan, can be an invaluable tool for future endeavors with your dog.

I must give credit to some of my most valuable teachers over the years who have taught me the art of some of these plans and thought processes including some of the most wonderful writings by authors/trainers Patricia B. McConnell, Karen Pryor, Terry Ryan and Denise Fenzi. Check out any of there books, some of which break down these processes on an even more in depth level.

Have fun planning!

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