How many of you arrive at your training venue and stand around for ten or fifteen minutes before you start trying to figure out what to do and not able to remember what you did last time? And then after having cobbled something together leave at the end of the session frustrated and demotivated with a dog that is still making the same mistakes.
The most common problem facing many people with respect to developing their dog’s skills over time is the ability to plan. When dog owners and trainers take the time to organize their objectives and action steps for a given week, month or even a year, they almost always are successful at implementing the plan. Far too many dog owners and trainers feel as though their actions during a single training session or practice is what will lead to positive change, when in fact it is the planning that occurs before these actions that accounts for the true gains.
If you have never planned your training sessions before it is best to start simply. Do not get bogged down by too much detail and only work on one or two skills at a time. Get a piece of paper and write down where you would like your dog’s training to be in four weeks. It could be learning to walk on a loose leash. It could be coming when called, every time. It could be self-control. Think about how far you could get your dog in four weeks and to what degree of competence each skill should be. Think about the skill sets that are involved in each of these activities and write them down.
Now that you have put your thoughts down on paper you must look at the time available for the training and be more specific about the what and when and where of the plan. Keep a notebook and write down the successes and failures with each training session. Follow up by tweaking your plan to take care of the failures by lowering your criteria or approaching the training a different way if necessary.
Most behaviours you require from your dog are quite complex. These complex behaviours are made up of “skill sets” which include all those physical and mental capabilities needed to perform the behaviour at a prescribed level. It is often best to teach a skill set independently from the actual desired final behaviour. This way you can largely prevent the dog from rehearsing errors more than necessary. The best predictor of success usually is the number of (correct) reinforcements. The higher the error rate the slower the progress and, usually, the more variable the final behaviour. Breaking down complex behaviours into skill sets and working on these using reward-based training will reduce errors. It helps to work with a training buddy to identify glitches in your training or get someone to video you. It is not always easy to detect the small errors in your handling that creep in despite the planning and care you put into your training programme without constructive help.
This system can easily be applied to 6 months or even a year. Just follow the same type of procedure as mentioned above – set out an objective for the time frame and decide where your dog needs to be within that time frame. Let’s say you have a 12-month old dog and you want to determine an objective and plan for the next six months.
- Take out your notebook and write out where you want your dog to be in six months – for this dog it could be learning some basic obedience skills.
- Be descriptive – what skill sets do you want him to have mastered? What will he show competency in? Go through the skills you’d like him to master and choose three or four skills that possibly need improvement.
- Now break those large objectives down into more manageable ones and make them your first 4-week objective and from there break it down even further by deciding on how many training sessions you will have over the course of the next four weeks and design them in accordance with your four-week objective.
- Next month, do the same thing.
When you create objectives and plans like this you will start seeing results in your dog that will surprise you. Taking training session by session with no vision or thought to the longer-term does not create a successful team. The more you practice planning your training around objectives and a plan the easier it becomes.