One of the biggest components to Planning for Success is choosing the environment that you will use for your training session. There are lots of things you may need to consider when choosing a location including your dog's previous experiences, how the environment will impact your dog's emotions, and what are your goals for the session.
Taking a look at previous experiences can really impact your session. Winter months making outdoor walking challenging in my climate and one of the few places we can walk safely is a 1 mile loop around a lake. Most of the trail is awesome, but there is a section that is nearly impossible to move off the trail if another dog comes from the opposite direction. Azul has been caught in the section multiple times and had dogs barking, lunging, and generally being obnoxious to him in this tight section of the trail. It's happened so frequently that Azul became hyper alert in this area, expecting to find another dog.
Since I didn't want Azul to be in that hyper alert state as an adolescent we had to change our walk. We could start in the parking lot and walk either direction around the lake and as soon as Azul began to enter that hyper alert state we simply turned around and walked back to the car the same way we came, thus avoiding the confined space section. As winter faded, I started parking in a back lot that took us through the confined area right away when Azul was in high sniff mode which reduced his pulling and prevented Azul from scanning none stop for another dog. Once we were past the trouble spot, we could both enjoy the rest of the walk. And as spring set in, we were again able to move off the trail a bit if another dog came out way.
This same story also allows us to consider Azul's emotional state. He wasn't really fearful in this environment, but right on the edge of becoming over-excited at the very sight of another dog in this location. And since Azul was still in adolescence, he had very little self control. Over-reacting was not a behavior I wanted him to practice so avoiding that area was best.
And lastly, what was my goal for those sessions. In the winter, my goal was simple; outdoor exercise and sniffs. We accomplished that goal by walking half way and turning around heading back the way we came. But in the spring, the goal changed to slowly adding that area back into our normal walk. With that goal change, came changing the starting location, finding slow times of day to walk and adding in some parking lot focus training before we started out on the walk. Sometimes avoiding a situation is the best action you can take right now! Developing a plan for the future, when circumstances improve as a great way to set up for success.
There are 6 questions I like to ask myself before picking a training environment.
What is my overall goal for this session? Are we working on maintaining well known behaviors? Are we trying to generalize a new behavior in multiple environments? Are we trying to train around a specific distraction? The overall goal should be used to help you determine how busy of an environment you can realistically achieve success in.
What are the expected distractions in the environment? If we are working toward a behavior modification plan are trying to desensitizate our dog to a specific distraction, we want a calm environment where we can control those distractions. This typically means working with a second person who can direct the movement of the distraction. However if we are working on generalizing a cue such as paws up on various surfaces, we need an environment with lots of surfaces and outside distractions do not impact the session as much. Something's might be controlled by the environment, for example a train might be a distraction but it's working on a fixed track so we can predict where it is coming from and where it is heading, then adjust our session as needed.
What are the unexpected and uncontrollable distractions in the environment? For my area, this is generally wildlife; deer, bunnies, squirrels, etc. But this can also be kids, playing at the park or the unexpected skateboarder. We can't ask any of these distractions to give us more space or wait for us to move away. These types of distractions are very important to consider anytime we are training something new or mentally challenging.
What are the environmental reinforcers? Sometimes we can use things in the environment as a reinforcement for behaviors; a loose leash means you can sniff the p-mail. Yet other times the environment is self reinforcing to our dogs so we can't motivate them to do the work we want in that session. Sniffing is something that we can use to our favor, yet other times gets in our way when a dog can't stop sniffing long enough to hear what we are asking.
What is the visual range where we can safely watch the distraction at a distance when we can successfully train? If we are working on training around a high distraction such as other dogs, we want to be able to watch and observe from far away such as a baseball or football field. But if we are working on parkour skills or being able to make rapid turns as a team, then we need an environment that's going to have a much smaller field of vision.
What amount of freedom does my dog need to be successful in this session? If we are working with a distraction that triggers fear, we want our dog to have a longline so they have more control over how close they are getting to the distraction. If we are working on focus, check-ins, or hand targets so our dog will remain pretty close to us, then we can use a hands-free leash or short leash and take up less space in the environment.
We can't talk about setting the environment up for success without mentioning environmental processing! It's important that we let our dogs sniff and become acclimated to the environment before we begin training. We have multiple posts on environmental processing in this blog and hope to have a video soon to help you learn how to engage in the environment with your dog!
Stay tuned for the February Focus on Behaviors Theme coming soon!