Thursday, January 12, 2023

Planning Your Goals


Before creating your training plan you need to think about the goals or dreams you hope to achieve with your dog. It's easy for us to think about what we want this very moment but if we are trying to train in the moment we typically end up frustrated. Planning for success involves thinking about your long term goals, then working backwards to what do you want in the next 6 months, how about 3 months, how about this week, and then what is your expectation for today. Working backwards like this in planning helps us to set more realistic goals for the moment. 

That doesn't mean the future goals can't change as your relationship with your dog grows! Your goals along your life journey with your dog can change because life throws lots of twists and turns we didn't expect. Being flexible with our long term goals is another key aspect of planning for success.

What are long term goals?

We can have 1-3 long term goals that may not totally fit the SMART Goals in the previous blog.
  • I want to use this puppy for Service Dog work and therefore great manners are a must.
This goal is not a SMART Goal because it's not specific, measurable or timely. Yet it fits the "dream" part of a long term goal and it can be developed further into a series of SMART Goals that can help you achieve the long term goal. This long term goal allows you to remain flexible, allowing for growth and developmental changes the puppy will go through before becoming an adult who can do the work you are hoping for.
  • I want my to dog to stop reacting and dragging me to or from every person they see.
Again this isn't a SMART Goal because it describes what you want to stop, not what you want to happen. Plus it is not necessarily achievable the way it is written because we have no idea what success would look like because it is too vague. This is the type of goal we make in the moment because our dog just caused a scene or hurt us trying to drag us or some other negative experience. However we can tweak this long term goal just slightly to make it more achievable in a way that will help us back up to the short term goals.
  • I want to be able to have happy walking experiences with my dog in the environment/neighborhood without fear of large reactions to triggers.
This way the long term goal helps us to think about a few key elements of this goal. 
    What does a happy walking experience look like?
    What does our environment look like?
    What are the triggers that are most troublesome?
From there we can back it down in a way that can help us achieve success together as a team, working to make things slowly better over the next few weeks, months, and year(s).

Long term goals should be flexible to be done in 1-2 yrs or be a plan that will require ongoing maintenance. For example: We can teach our dogs leash manners when they are younger, however if we go for a long period of time without rewarding a release of leash pressure those manners are going to slowly grow worse over time. If we go back to the Service Dog Goal above, once our dog is fulling working as Service Dog, they must find the work reinforcing or we must continue to reinforce that work or it slowly stops to have over time. Often we want to teach our dogs to love the activities we want them to do, so we develop a self reinforcing behavior for the dog that helps us to reduce the reinforcement we need provide in the future.

One of Azul's goals as an adolescent was simply to continue to work on leash manners in multiple environments as his brain developed by avoiding situations where he would repeat undesirable behaviors and provide frequent opportunities to do activities he loved that allowed us to repeat desirable behaviors. That's a very long worded long term goal that outlined a bit more than I would typically put in a long term goal however I was trying to remind myself of the key points I needed to consider for the environments we chose to go in.

What are Short Term Goals?

The first thing we need to consider with short term goals is what are the physical and emotional needs of the human and the dog involved. We have to meet these needs before we can set up a learning environment. This covers many needs beyond the normal food, water, shelter, exercise. We also need to look at enrichment needs such as sniffing the environment, chewing on approved items, licking if that is stress relieving for our dog, etc. 

In the Service Dog world we also need to look at the human's physical ability to provide for the dog's exercise needs, which is often challenging. This is especially true for mobility dogs because the human side of the leash has physical limitations or they wouldn't need a mobility dog & mobility service dogs tend to be large, strong dogs that can extreme energy especially during adolescence. It's a fine line between meeting our dog's exercise needs and building up our dog to need more and more exercise in their day. If we love to jog with our dogs and can do it most days, then building up our dog's ability to jog further and further is great. But if can only jog with our dog once a month and not go very far, we probably don't want to build up that need for a daily jog. Tennis ball chasing is often criticized as being bad exercise for dogs. It's not the tennis ball itself, but more how we as the human side use the tennis ball for training, how exciting we make it, and how long we do it. There is no right or wrong amount of time you can play ball with your dog, which makes it super challenging to figure out what works best for your household.

Then we need to consider the human and dog emotions in a situation. I'm actually a fan of considering the emotional side of things first, but most owners consider exercise and enrichment needs first. If our dog has had previous bad experiences with over reacting to triggers, we tend be triggered by seeing those same things. It's not that our emotions cause their emotions, but our actions to our emotions can travel down the leash to cause their over reactions to their emotions. If that emotion that is causing the over reaction is fear based that makes it even harder because we know dogs in fear states are not able to learn. That means we have to have a plan that involves working at a safe distance and keeping our dog feeling safe before we can make progress.

One of the things we tend to leave out with planning is reinforcement!
Often we think of reinforcement as the food/treats we feed our dog to reward the behaviors we want them to continue doing. Food is great for training new behaviors, but eventually I don't want to reward every single behavior with food all day long or I'm going to have a fat dog and a dog that can only do the work when food is present. We know that lots of undesirable behaviors are self reinforcing; the dog who counter surfs is finding his own food rewards. But many times we don't consider making desirable behaviors self reinforcing. We also need to look at environmental reinforcement and delayed reinforcement. For more on reinforcement check out this previous post: Understanding Reinforcement & Self Reinforcement.

We also need to look at management during training sessions and down time. If we look at that counter surfing dog, we need to prevent the self reinforcing behavior as much as possible with clean counters free of rewards and using gates and other tools to block access to the counters. If we are looking at a dog who reacts to other dogs, we have to be prepared and able to control our dog if an unexpected dog enters our environment. We can do our best to set up the environment for success and choose a time when unexpected dogs are not common but if it happens we need an exit plan and way to make that work. A dual clip harness with a front and back clip is a great adolescent tool to help an over excited dog move backwards when they really want to rush forward to greet the newcomer. Our sort term plans need to include what we will do to manage the environment while we are in the training process.

And the last thing we need to consider in short term goals is how we communicate with our dogs and how they communicate with us. Our short term plans need to have a clear vision of how we will communicate our wants to our dog in a way that they will understand. Often humans prefer verbal cues and dogs learn quicker with visual cues so we need to look at ways to blend the two different methods in a way that allows us to communicate. This will help us develop clear communication that we need to practice in multiple environments before the behavior is fully learned. Check out this post on Generalizing Cues for more info about creating clear cues that work work in multiple environments.

Then finally we take these aspects of what we want our short term plan to look like and write them up in SMART Goal format so that we will know exactly what we doing for the next 3/6 months. This is what my January Special is all about! I have some free resources on this site. I have some free resources available for those who feel confident in doing their own planning here: 
But if you are not confident in setting up your own training plan or feeling overwhelmed with the idea, I can help by walking through it with you using my January Planning for Success Package. Reach out to me at for help determining if this package is right for your.

Adding More Enrichment

As dog owners, we use reinforcement to reward our dogs for the behaviors we like. Enrichment is often confused as being an extra great or j...