If your home is anything like many pet parent homes, then chances are at some point you’ve run into the same problem lots of folks run into—that is, reaching the end of the day and realizing you didn’t practice that training exercise you promised yourself you’d do with your dog. You know that homework your trainer gave you? You didn’t practice as much as you had hoped, and now you’ve run out of time for the day. You had planned to set aside time to work on some skills with your dog and before long the session got pushed aside for one reason or another and then that thing happened … bed time.
How did this happen? You had every intention of doing the repetitions but then life happened and the training didn’t. The challenge is in how we think about working with and training our dogs. It is fairly easy to not have practiced as much as you meant to. All it takes is a particular perception of training your dog. When we think about training as something we have to get to, something that we’ll do later today, like an appointment, then it’s easy to find yourself prioritizing other things that happen in the day. This is because we usually don’t view the stakes as high if we don’t get around to doing that recall drill or that down-stay exercise.
What a Lot of People Do
People love their dogs, and they did mean to work on that training skill—they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. There are a lot of people out there that really mean well when it comes to teaching their dogs. The issue is that, unfortunately, lots of families try to teach their dogs at the wrong time. They’ve pushed off proactively training their dog, and now they’re facing challenging behavior. What do they do? In a lot of scenarios, the family attempts to get their dog to perform obedience he hasn’t rehearsed or hold a still position he hasn’t spent any time practicing.
And they’ll push this unpracticed behavior, all while the dog is dealing with his perception of whatever is happening around him at that moment. Then, as many families have shared with me, the dog typically isn’t able to perform the way the family desires, so frustration sets in. Now we have humans who are flustered and a dog that is confused. And this is not a fun place to be. It can feel like you’re going in circles and not getting anywhere. Some folks may begin to resent their dog, because they haven’t been able to get a handle on how their dog behaves when people come to their house or when they pass another dog while out on a walk. Miscommunication seems to be ever present.
A Different Approach
Instead of stacking up all your missed practice sessions and building momentum in the wrong direction, try to reframe the way you look at training your dog. Don’t view the work as something you have to get done. It’s not just a box to check off your list. Sure, training can be a box that deserves a check on your list of things to get done. But think about training not as one task but as a little bit of work done a lot of the time. It doesn’t have to be this arduous, time-consuming thing we avoid and then eventually push off entirely. We tend to get better results with the short-and-sweet training sessions that are packed with quality repetitions.
Remember that you don’t have to have long training sessions to get great results for your time and effort. The training sessions with your trainer are actually quite long, in most cases. When you train at home, it’s better to aim for small progress with a high rate of success. Whatever the behavior or skill you’re working on, moving slower and striving for more frequent, short sessions with your dog is usually the best way to go. It’s not that different from raising a child. Teaching happens a little bit at a time, all the time—not in big chunks of learning, only some of the time.
In the Moment vs Drilling Your Dog
I encourage all my clients to remember that there is a difference between asking your dog to do something in the moment and spending time setting up practice drills to facilitate learning. Think about why we did fire drills in school as kids. We never did a drill after a fire occurred. We wouldn’t start a fire just to practice a drill for the first time. It seems silly to even imagine. The purpose of our fire drills was to rehearse what to do, where to go, and how to behave in the event of a fire actually happening. It was all preventative. It all happened well before there was ever a fire. The same should be true with training your dog.
Consider that dogs also benefit from rehearsing lots of repetitions of practice drills. Instead of trying to teach your dog to settle when someone has just arrived at your home, stage a drill where your dog practices calmness around the front door, for you and not a visitor. Once your dog can do that for you in rehearsal, you can bet they’ll perform better in the moment when someone actually has arrived at your house. When you make time to train before you need your dog to perform, setting up practice drills for your dogs to rehearse, they get the chance to acquire a skill set that they can draw from when you’re in an “in-the-moment” scenario.
What You Can Do with Five Spare Minutes
So, if we know that we tend to push off training our dogs, little by little, until we don’t have the time to do it, then how do we correct this challenge? The answer is simple: we lower the bar on expectations. Most families with dogs also have other responsibilities that require their time and attention. We can combat a busy schedule by shrinking our sessions into bite-sized mini-sessions. For example, instead of committing to one long walk each day, try for several short sessions of walking your dog in your home. Just a few minutes at a time, repeatedly, will yield much greater results. You’d be shocked at how much your dog’s leash behavior improves by making that small adjustment.
Or you might try setting yourself a timer before you work your dog. In just five minutes, your goal is to knock out as many quality repetitions as you can. Keep it light, keep it fun, and maximize repetitions. Whatever you’re working on, strive for high-quality practice in a shorter amount of time. It helps to know exactly what you’re working on before you start training. Maybe in one five-minute, session you pick one or two skills. You rotate through those skills back and forth for the duration of your five minutes. This allows for you to achieve much more training in much less time. Again, think about small progressions but a high rate of success. You’ll dramatically improve progress for your dog by moving slower, increasing repetitions, and keeping your sessions short and sweet.
Maintenance is Crucial for Success
This is an area where good training can ultimately fail, whether you’re in a program or training your dog at home with your family. Often, we tend to slow or completely stop our training as soon as or shortly after we begin to notice progress in our dog’s behavior. We’re in the trenches doing the work—there are ups and downs. Then, one day we notice that our dog hasn’t done “that thing” he usually does. This is the exact moment when families think their dog must be fully trained. He’s finished, he’s fixed, he’s cured—or so they think. Remember that progress doesn’t necessarily equal a complete, finished, and consistent behavior/response from your dog. No amount of training can guarantee that. The only safe bet is that as long as you continue to do the work, your dog should continue to improve behaviorally.
Dogs are not machines or puppets—they have the free will to choose behavior other than what we think they should be doing. Knowing a skill doesn’t always mean a dog will perform a skill when we ask them to. So, maintenance is key to longevity in our training. As soon as you notice positive progress in whatever area you are practicing, that’s your signal that you are at the starting line. From here, it’s best to continue your drills and your reps as much as possible. Consistently revisiting exercises and “brushing off the dust” is a sure way to increase your chances of having your dog respond the way you’d like, and when you need them to. Don’t sweat it if your day is busy, and training seems out of the question. Know that you can pack a lot of training into just five minutes’ time. Strive for as many action-packed five-minute sessions as you can, rather than falling behind and skipping training altogether. Short and sweet sessions with higher repetition and lots of fun will get you further, faster. Happy training!