Smart Plans start with SMART Goals
First, what is a S.M.A.R.T Goal
This means that your goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Goals that meet this criteria will keep you on track to success while stretching your skills as a trainer and your dog's skills to thrive in your world.
- Specific: Simply states the end goal behavior that you want your dog to be able to do.
- Measurable: Should be something that you can clearly see happening.
- Achievable: Should be within your dog's natural abilities without asking them to do the impossible.
- Relevant: Something that will effect your ability to function in your everyday life more effectively as a team.
- Time bound: Realistic amount of time you expect to need to achieve your goal.
It can be hard to figure out what is "specific" and what is more "open-ended" when it comes to goals in dog training because this might vary depending on the skill you are working on. For example, much of last year was working on Azul's leash manners in various environments which is can be OK if you are looking at a long term goal that you know is going to take a year or longer to achieve. But if you want to break it down into a 3 or 6 month training plan, that is too broad or open-ended to help you achieve your goals. If the longer term plan is improved leash skills, the shorter term plan might include goals that started like this:
- Reinforce heel position in off leash games...
- Reduce pulling on the leash by...
- Encourage more frequent check-ins by...
The first part of any goal in training plan needs to state the exact behavior you want repeated or want to disappear. This can include the behaviors that we will reinforce to teach our dog to repeat them such as walking nicely near our side, laying comfortably at our feet, sitting before crossing the road, etc. We can also include behaviors that we would like to stop in this part of the goal as long as we state how we are going to work on that in the goal. For example, we might have a goal that states, " Reduce countersurfing by using good management while we work through the attached shaping plan..." Starting the goal out with a specific behavior that you or your dog will be practicing is the best way to determine what comes next in the goal.
When we think of measurable in dog training, we commonly think of the "3 D's" of Distance, Duration & Distraction which are all excellent ways to measure goals. If we are working on a down/stay, we might start with a goal of being able to back away a certain distance which is measurable in feet. Then we might tweak the goal to build up the time in seconds, then minutes. And lastly we begin to build up distractions with minor distractions that slowly build in intensity. We can use any form of measurement in this part of the goal. Distance might include steps, inches/feet, car length, cones spaced at desired distance, etc. Duration might include time spent doing the behavior, but it could also include time spent interacting with us doing multiple behaviors, such as playing my favorite Positions Game
. Environmental distractions are generally thought of things in the environment that impact the dog's senses; something the dog smells, hears, sees, feels, or tastes. Using the goals started above, we may add measurement to them like this:
- Reinforce heel position in off leash games by playing the Positions Game 5 minutes a day...
- Reduce pulling on the leash by using the U-Turn pattern on daily walks every day...(this goal would be more for the owner to form good habits but also works on pattern memory for dogs too.)
- Encourage more frequent check-ins by playing The Name Game in minor distraction environments...
We can use any form of measurement that makes sense to us when determining this goal. The idea behind using a measurement is so that we have a clear idea of when we accomplish the goal. If we simply state, "improve the dog's ability to heel in distracting environments," we have no starting or ending point to this goal and therefore we can't be sure when we accomplish the goal. We all know that as humans we struggle to remember what we did 5 min ago, yesterday or last week. So we can't expect ourselves to remember that our dog could only hold a 10 sec stay a few months ago and now they can hold a 3 min stay. Unfortunately we are more likely to remember that they held a 5 min stay last week, but now they are struggling with 2 min. If we include the measurement in the goal, we can easily check the box off that we accomplished this goal and decide whether to increase the measurement for the next training plan or hold at the measure we are currently achieving to build up more history for that behavior.
Goals need to be something that is realistic for your dog and for your timeline. While all dogs have a pretty good sniffer, you wouldn't want to build a goal around teaching your dog to do medical alerts in a short period of time if you haven't been doing any type of scent games to help them get used to controlling their nose. You also wouldn't want to build a goal around teaching your dog to recall to you around distractions if you haven't yet built up the value of proximity. Advanced behaviors take time to develop into reality, sometimes months or years. There are some dogs that simply can't do some skills! You wouldn't train an Aussie to pull a sled like a Husky unless you planned to keep it very lightweight, doing it more for fun than function. When building your goals, it's important to consider your dog's physical abilities, emotional needs, the environment that skill will be used in, and other bigger picture needs. If you are unsure if the goal you have in mind is realistic and achievable for your team, contact a Canine Coach for help!
This is probably the #1 problem I see with dog owners who love training simply to train. I loving refer to many of my Canine Coach partners as Dog Nerds or people who love dog training in general. But you don't have to be a professional to enjoy the activity of dog training. We know that training can lead to an increase in the human-animal bond and cause both parties to feel joy. And all training should increase your bond with your dog! However, we need to be careful that we are not setting goals for our team that are not relevant to our team bigger picture. For example, I love Dog Agility as a sport and enjoy watching competitions. As an inexperienced owner playing with training, I'd set up mini agility courses in my backyard. But realistically, my dogs and I will never step into an agility ring so doing K9 Parkour is a much better fit for us. We can still practice the parts of agility that are relevant to our day to day lives exploring the woods and having adventures in nature; climbing on objects, jumping over items, learning foot placement and cues that help us work together better, etc.
It's important to consider the overall goals of your life with your dog so that you set goals that will actually benefit your lifestyle. Avoid goals that will not impact your day-to-day so you don't allow frustration to set into your team trying to train things that are not relevant to your lifestyle.
Having goals that can be achieved within a certain timeline is the last step of setting your SMART Goals. While this somewhat has to do with being realistic and not setting goals that are not achievable within your training planning, the bigger picture is setting goals in small enough pieces that you can achieve the goal in the 3/6 month training plan you are building. Looking back at our 3 original goals, they may end like this:
- Reinforce heel position in off leash games by playing the Positions Game 5 minutes a day, building toward being able to heel together for 10 feet in medium distraction environments over the next 3 months.
- Reduce pulling on the leash by using the U-Turn pattern on daily walks every day, beginning in very low distraction environments to make this pattern become habit for both handler and dog before we begin the next training plan.
- Encourage more frequent check-ins by playing The Name Game in minor distraction environments by setting up a distance where we can be successful building toward being able to get automatic check-ins during the course of day-to-day activities by the end of this training plan.
Stay tuned for "What Happens if You Meet Your Goal Early!" "What Happens if you Don't Meet Your Goal!" and knowing when you need a "Short Term Goal vs Long Term Goal!"
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