Inside the Mind of a Dog Trainer: Break it Down

Brown Dog Paws in Grass

Dog trainers plan on (and look for) little steps in the right direction.

This can be a significant change for a lot of us! Not only are our brains accustomed to primarily noticing the finished product, but many families are so exasperated with their dog that it seems impossible to see the good when the bad appears so big.  

Why do trainers do it this way? And who actually has time to wait for all the little steps?  
We do it like this because we want plenty of opportunities to tell the dog they got it right. The more often we tell the dog, "you're right!," the faster he learns and the more likely he is to choose us and our requests over everything else the world has to offer.  
Conversely, if the expectations are set too high the dog doesn't get very much "you're right!" feedback. Not only does this delay training, but the dog gets discouraged and doesn't want to participate.

I have been singing much of my life and started taking private voice lessons in 2013. Sadly, as my teachers became unavailable, I had to change instructors.
My third teacher was wonderful, but the technique she taught was quite a bit different than what I'd been practicing the last four years. Our lessons went well, but practice during the week was challenging. I was unsuccessful at replicating what we did in lesson, and those failures left me very unmotivated to practice on my own. Being a human, I could pep-talk myself and look forward to meeting with my teacher the following week to discuss the struggles. Nevertheless, practicing wasn't easy and I didn't always want to practicing on my own. 

Dogs experience the same thing. Practice sessions overflowing with failures (even tiny ones), make them uninterested in participating. With enough repetition they actually begin to hate "singing" because they feel so depressed every time singing happens. They associate singing with depression.

"That's great and all, but what does it have to do with dog training?" 

When I teach Down-Stay, my chief goal is to keep the dog from popping up out of the Down. This means that when I begin the training, I train in a quiet place without a lot of distraction. I stand right next to the dog and reward him intermittently for holding the Down. Once he's doing well with that, I take one tiny step away, return, and reward the dog. If he gets up when I take that tiny step, I know I did too much, too soon. Next time, I'll just rise up on my toes, or take half a step and see if he can manage that. I continue making it harder little by little until I can walk 15 steps away, or whatever other goal I have in mind!

Learning to break behaviors down into small pieces can take some practice! If you're struggling to teach your dog something, consider these questions:

  • Is he making any effort in the right direction? (Ex: bending elbows if you're trying to teach a Down, or turning his head towards you if you're trying to teach his name). Think the Hot-Cold game!
  • Are there any ways I can make it less complex for him--so he only has to focus on one element right now? (Ex: practicing Stay with a child sitting in a chair instead of bouncing a ball)

If you still need help, contact us!