Some of the best lessons I have learned about dog training came from my days working with pros in the field with hunting dogs. The first lesson I learned from my father who kept and ran hounds was to work the dogs daily even if only for short times. Most of a dog’s day is spent resting or passing the time chewing on a bone while waiting for their person to initiate some type of activity. However small that time together is, that dog, my dad would say, will wait all day for and will cherish every moment. They will think about the time together with their person while waiting for the next occaision. Another lesson I learned from the field was to always plan out your training time ahead of time. Go to training time with your dog, with your goal in mind. A little bit of preplanning on your part will have great payoffs in the long run. Your training sessions should be building on each other, allowing the dog to progress and develop the skills needed for the ultimate task the dog is being trained for. To build you need a blueprint to keep you on task and accomplishing what you aim for.
For example, if my goal is train a puppy for someone as a service dog with public access skills, I know I have to ultimately have a dog that is solid on all aspects of obedience under all conditions. I can build the skills the dog will need to handle all conditions they might encounter in public by starting with small lessons at home. Each lesson I present to the dog is designed to prepare it for more difficult lessons later on as the puppy matures and learns the basics. These lessons do not have to be long initially. Here is one example.
Yesterday my husband Sam and I each took a 10 week old puppy to the local feed store. It’s a small store in our town, has cement floors, sliding doors, many different smells and not too many people. This is a perfect place for the pups first time inside a building other than our house. Before the went into the store however, we made sure they were good at riding in the car, going “potty” on command, walking well on a loose leash and knowing the sit command to be petted. Those lessons were taught at home on a daily basis for several weeks. At the store, the first thing we did was “potty” the pups before we went inside. Once inside the building, we each walked our respective pup around to get familiar them with the smells. I never stop a puppy from smelling but I do required them to keep up with me as we walk around the store. Their noses never stopped but that’s OK as they are pups and this was a first exposure. When we met a person, the pup had to sit before being petted. Each puppy met at least 6 people and I am pleased they did not try to jump on anyone. After about 15 minutes we were all back in the car and on our way home. For pups this age, I feel this an appropriate lesson in both content and time.
As these pups grow and mature those lessons will increase in difficulty and the length of time we are out but that is down the road. For now, all the lessons are kept short and as positive as possible. I get excellent results with this approach I think for several reasons. First, there is a clear objective. In the example above the objective was to continue to build on the loose leash walking but this time with higher distractions like moving doors, people walking around, and many new and interesting smells. Second, the length of the session is short enough it does not overwhelm the puppy. They are back in their crate with a bit of down time to “think about” what we just did and hopefully retain more of it because of that down time.
Last, there is plenty of in and between training times for the puppy to play and do puppy things on their own time. All the programs I have set up for other schools and organizations have always included a healthy portion of exercise and play time. Not only does it keep the body fit but allows the dog to decompress from any stress or anxiety from the lessons. I believe that not all dogs show their stress when training and those that tend to hide the telltale signs of it will often play the hardest and with the most intensity. In any case, I have observed that the play time keeps my canine students happy and willing.
For those reading this who are training their own service dog that last aspect of my program might be difficult to incorporate into your training. That is a problem I am often asked about and many people think it is not as important as I am making it sound. Perhaps so, but think about this. When people bring me their service dogs to help fix problem areas with the training or to try and determine why the dog has quit working or has slacked off in their performance one of the first things I do is let them have some free time with other dogs playing in the exercise fields we have on our farm. That one act alone has changed the attitude of many of the dogs that have come here. The rest of the issues resolve very quickly, rarely do I run into what I would call major issues. My point here is often without the balance of down time, training time, and free time dogs will get with bored, too tired or too stressed. When we ask them to work for us in any type of service capacity we need to always remember that it is a blessing they are willing to share their remarkable talents with us and as a result we need to respect their need for balance in their lives. Too often in today’s society people work far too much, spend far too little time relaxing in healthy ways, and little balance in their life between work, rest, and socializing. I can see how easy it would be to drag the service dog into that scenario. Be aware and be proactive in keeping your dog on track. Paying attention to those little things can be your key to success.
Here are some ideas to help you try to balance the little things in your dog’s life:
- For every hour of training have at least the same amount of play time.
- If walking, running or swimming a dog for exercise is a real challenge for you consider getting a doggy treadmilland use it on a regular basis.
- Don’t be afraid to use your dog’s crate (their private space) to your and their advantage. Let them rest here for 30 minutes after any training session if possible. Science has shown this does help them to retain the lesson better.
- Brush your dog regularly whether he/she needs it or not. The connection and stress reduction effect is amazing.
- If you don’t have a training planlook for one that is already made up for you and follow it.