Happy Pups. Happy People. Happy Planet.

How Do You Know If Your Training Plan Stinks?

By Jimmy Maxwell KPA-CTP

When I was first starting out in my professional dog training adventure, I was training service dogs through clicker training. It was very rewarding, but also very difficult. The number of behaviors that a dog has to have down pat, and in the short span of about six months, is a tall order. So, when things aren’t going well it can get very frustrating very fast. The average pet owner may experience this frustration, not because you have a deadline to teach the behavior, but because you just want the crazy to end. But even with the best intentions, and the best methods, can result in little to no results and make you want to either quit, or resort to drastic measures. I have been there.

Early in my experience training service dogs, I was working on a behavior with one of my assigned dogs but finding no progress. I found myself just standing there, staring at the dog, looking for a clickable moment, and not finding one. So, I asked a supervisor for help and she agreed to come watch my training. I began “training” and after about thirty seconds of standing there she asked me, “why aren’t you clicking?” and I said “Because there is nothing to click”. She just looked at me and said, “Well then you need to reduce your criteria.” Which is trainer talk for, “You are expecting too much from the dog”.

Often, we think that our dogs are untrainable, stubborn, or bull-headed. Or we think that maybe they just aren’t as intelligent as other dogs. And while some dogs learn at a faster pace than others often it is not the dog that needs to change, but our training plan. Like people, dogs learn at different speeds and in different ways. There are certain methods and strategies for teaching particular behaviors, but they don’t always work. And if we are trying to make the dog learn the way we think they should and are unable to adapt to the dog, we are setting them and ourselves up for failure.

So how do we know when our training plan stinks? In the same way that my supervisor measured it while I was training my service dog that day. I wasn’t clicking. Like children, dogs need to learn 1+1 before advanced calculus and we should have the same expectations for our pups. So, if our expectation is to click the dog when he lays down and this is a behavior that is rarely offered, then you and your dog are likely getting frustrated, and will likely just give up. But if we are looking for something to click, looking at the floor might be a good place to start, and then gradually increase that expectation until the dog is laying down.

My training mentor tells me that if he isn’t getting six clicks in a minute, he goes back to the training plan and makes adjustments to it. He understands that it’s not the dog that needs to adjust and adapt, but him. And in dog training, we have learned that it is a rare thing to have the original training plan pan out perfectly. In fact, it is almost expected that it won’t work. This is the mentality to carry into your training. It’s not about success and failure, but collecting information. That information is what should be guiding our next move, not our frustration. If it’s not working, find ways for your dog to succeed and this will make for more successful training, which leads to a happier dog and a happier you!

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