Sunday, August 13, 2023

Did you Do Your Homework?

 How many times have you put off doing your homework?

Whether you are looking at homework for school, house cleaning, yard work, even writing blogs for your dog training page...humans tend to get bogged down with a never ending list of things we need to accomplish. Many look at dog training as a never-ending job that requires work. I'm hoping with this blog to challenge how we as people look at the job of training our dogs!


I commonly get asked by clients for a list of homework to do between sessions. And I often get asked by fellow dog trainers about the types of homework I give to my clients. My answer is typically the same thing to both. I DON'T GIVE HOMEWORK!

Why I don't give homework to my clients:
  1. Training your dog should be fun and enjoyable!  Very few people I've known have actually enjoyed doing homework, while most people hate doing homework. 
  2. Training your dog should fit easily in your day! People commonly struggle with the act of getting started doing a job, saving it until they get the whole job done at once without interruption. Yet training in mini-sessions throughout the normal course of your day is much better for you and your dog.
  3. Training your dog should be ever changing! There may be some things that we do in our day with our dog that is best on a routine such as meals, potty outings, etc. But when it comes to training new things we need to flexible based on other activities in our day. If you've had a bad day, you should do something more relaxing or something you love with your dog instead of focusing on a training plan. However if you've had an amazing day, you may be able to do more with your dog on that day. Some people work during the week and have weekends off, thus training would look different during the week than it does the weekend. As a Canine Coach, I'm not there with you every day to tell you what you should be focusing on for that day! However, I often give my clients some great activities to do on the rainy days or days you simply can't do training for some reason. 
  4. Training your dog should be like telling the story. There isn't a specific start/stop to the action that takes place, but more like new chapters that build on what has happened previously and continue to progress into new adventures and activities. You don't simply teach your dog to hold a stay in one training session, or even one training session a day for a month. You start with a simple 1-2 second stay in a low distraction environment and gradually build up the distance, duration, and distractions involving that skill. Especially if you start training with a puppy! The expectation for a 6 month old puppy is that you can back of 5 steps and return to your puppy to deliver reinforcement. Around 12 months that expectation would then increase to 10 steps away with a pause before returning. And the expectation for an adult is that you can back away 20 steps. Yet we all know dogs that can hold a stay much longer than that, right! That's because the more practice you have doing a skill, the better you get and the same is true for our dogs. The skill of holding a stay is built up over time as the dog and owner develop teamwork together. No matter how old a dog gets, you can still reinforce and build the skill of stay because the story never ends.
  5. Training your dog should happen in a wide variety of environments. It's true that when training a very new skill, you need to start at home or a low distraction environment. But training can't end there. As the story progresses, we need to slowly build in more and more environments. Let's look at loose leash walking for a moment. You start with training at home, walking through the house, then move out into your driveway, perhaps the backyard, perhaps up and down the sidewalk in front of your house all before trying to walk around the block. Then your walking world slowly expands to more and more environments based on where you live. With a puppy we kind of naturally do this in an attempt to keep the puppy safe. So many people struggle with leash walking with older dogs simply because the environment is too distracting and the work hasn't happened yet to build up to these super fun environments. (I'm really guilty of this too!) Since training in new environments needs to build up slowly, we may not always be able to get to the next environment as quickly as we'd like. Winters are harsh in my area making outdoor walking more challenging which means training any sorts of outdoor leash manners need to go on hold for a few months. Service Dog in Training Rosalind is working on practicing skills in new environments, but because of the busy Training Center schedule, having time to get her into the new environments is challenging. 
I probably could make this list even longer, but like all good dog training let's keep it simple and now put it all together. As a Canine Coach, I don't know what your day to day struggles are or all your other responsibilities in your time between sessions. The last thing I'm going to do is judge you or belittle you for not doing your homework! I don't know what kind of week or month you just had unless you tell me. 

What I do know is if you and your dog are communicating with each other effectively, if either of you are feeling stressed, frustrated, or confused in what we are working on at the Training Center. From this I can often tell if you spent any time practicing skills at home or not. But more importantly I can see what the next steps for you should be. 
  • Do we need to slow down the training or can we perhaps speed up? 
  • Do we need to change the games we are playing to make it easier for the dog to learn or make it more challenging to keep the dog engaged?
  • Do we need to hold of on training for awhile to let your dog recover from an injury or grow up a bit? Or perhaps we need to meet more often or check in with each other between sessions?
I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Actions speak louder than words!" This holds true to doing your homework too. Most of my clients come to me because they want to enjoy their dog more. Often they may be struggling with a certain behavior or challenges that is making it hard to enjoy their dog. My job is then to help those clients enjoy working with their dog to improve their teamwork, build better skills, and reduce those challenges. Homework often adds stress, but my key goal is to add enjoyment for both you and your dog.

Just look at how much fun Jackson is having during this session!

When do I give out homework?

The number one reason I hand out homework is when I have a client that I see is very list or schedule oriented. Some people do better with a checklist of items to do every day so I will help them develop that checklist. Some people desire to be held accountable, so I may set up a weekly chat based check-in with full sessions 1-2 times a month. Some people need clear goals often with check points along the way so we may set up a long-term & short-term training plan.

Another reason for homework might be that we simply don't have time to review every thing in our session so we might look at some virtual resources as well. I might send clients a webinar that they can watch for greater details between sessions. Virtual resources can be a great help to clients who want more advanced knowledge. I may even recommend that you take one of my online classes as well as joining me for in-person or zoom based training sessions. People learn in a wide variety of ways which means sometimes they need to hear it, read it, and/or see it in action before they really process the information. This Yooper Paws Blog is a wealth of free information so I might send clients one or more blogs to read before our next session. This homework is something that is often a bonus to clients not a requirement and not something specific that you HAVE to do with your dog. People sometimes need/want homework for themselves, but this shouldn't take away from the fun they should be having with their dog!

Another reason I may assign homework is when clients don't know what they want to work on or have a trouble that they simply can't pinpoint. I may send home a planning worksheet and/or tracking form for the client to fill out before our next session. These tools are available in a wide variety of formats but digitally and print versions so they can be easily accessed by all my clients. I'm continually developing new worksheets all the time based on class or client needs. So if I don't have a worksheet or tracking form designed already, I'll set one up based on each client's needs. And I'll work with that client to fill out the planning sheet if they want. I never want these forms to be considered a requirement such as when you show up for a doctors appointment and are handed a clipboard of forms to fill out. No one enjoys that! Instead I want worksheets and tracking forms to be something clients can use if they find them helpful. 

Often with clients at the Training Center, I'll pull out my dry erase board as we do some planning together to create a rough outline of what we will be working on. Then at the end of the session we can simply take a picture of the board. This helps us both remember what we want to be working on and allows us to change this outline if the needs change over the course of our sessions. This type of planning serves as homework for both the client and myself! I refer back to this planning board before our next scheduled session to determine what type of activities to set up to start the session. If a client contacts me with a problem between sessions, I'll refer back to this planning board to see if this problem is related to one of the things we wanted to work on. Sometimes something we are working on might lead to new a problem or sometimes there was an unpredicted experience that might derail the plans or need us to create a new plan. Either way, it's important to remember what the overall goals and key points of focus are during our sessions so that we can continue to see an increase in skills and teamwork for both dog and owner.

Simple plan to help an energetic puppy calm down for nap time.




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