Saturday, February 3, 2024

Understanding Routines

Using routines in dog training can speed up progress with predictability!

While some dogs are more motivated by routines than others, all dogs enjoy an element of predictability. There are some situations in training where we want to be unpredictable and other situations where predictability allows us to train more advanced behaviors. Let's take a look at a few different types of routines that are commonly found among dog families.

Dinner Routine

Most dog owners establish some type of dinner routine where the meals are delivered at roughly the same time every day, typically morning or evening. Puppies often eat 3-4 times a day because their stomach is so small. A solid puppy mealtime plan can really help figure out when your puppy needs to go out to potty and that predictability can make potty training much easier on the humans. As the puppy grows and learns the routine, we often begin to add certain training to the meal. You may ask your dog to sit and wait, stay on a mat, or some other calm behavior before sitting a bowl of food down for them to eat. Some people choose to hand feed a portion of their meal in training so you may spend 10-20 minutes practicing whatever skills you are currently training. Even if you free feed (leave food out for your dog all day), chances are you probably fill up that bowl on some type of a schedule such as every morning. 

I generally have kibble available all day long, but my dogs get an added bonus for breakfast and dinner which typically means some kind of meat added to their meal. However I feed in a wide variety of ways including bowls, enrichment toys, training games, and scatter feeding. Since meal times at my house are more random, I don't follow a specific routine except when I have a new puppy that I'm potty training. Belle and Azul are already used to free feeding system we have in place.

Potty Routine

These might be more popular in the Working Paws community where it's important to communicate potty needs between dog & handler, but all dogs can benefit from a routine of some sorts. Often people use a timer with a young pup and take them outside every 20 min if they are away, slowly increasing the time as the puppy grows up. I know some Service Dog Handlers that keep their dog on a stricter potty routine, taking them out at the exact same time every day. 

I'm not a schedule oriented person so my potty routine is based more on communication then a clock. With puppies, every time they change activities we go out to potty! Wake up from a nap, outside, finish eating, outside, ending playtime, outside, etc. Playtime is a big one.  If the puppy is running around actively playing with a human or another dog and they suddenly stop and wander off, chances are they need to potty. Every time puppy goes potty, I say a cue word and it typically doesn't take long for the puppy to learn that cue. Once the cue is learned, I start to teach the puppy a specific signal to give when they need to go outside for potty. Over the years, I've used a bunch of different signals including pawing at the door or bells on the door, barking at the door, doing a paws up on my lap to get my attention, and my most recent signal is a door button system that includes the dog doing a nose target on the button to go out and come back in.

What it comes to developing a potty routine, consistency is the key. Puppies have to go out so many times a day that it typically doesn't take them long to recognize a pattern or routine if you are consistent. What your routine entails is going to be specific to your surroundings! If you live in a rural area vs an apartment or urban environment often predicts how much space you have and what gear you need. I have a fenced in backyard, but a large ramp to reach the gate so I place my dogs on longlines to walk down the gate until they learn to heel down the ramp nicely. Urban areas often have a leash law that prohibits anything more than a 6ft leash and you may have a designated potty area for your dog. The gear you need often predicts the other parts of the routine. I simply place a collar or harness on my dog before going out the back door and longlines at the top of the porch for a short 60 second or less routine. It takes us much longer to prep to go on a walk or in the car than it does to go into the backyard. Having a routine helps the dogs learn what is expected of them in the moment which can make a difference in whether your dog goes immediately after going outside or wanders a bit before they finally stop to potty.

Creating a Calm Relaxation Routine!

As puppies grow older they learn very quickly to navigate their world and if left alone often start getting into trouble. It's natural for puppies to chew on things, jump up on obstacles, dig in the dirt, and chase things. However these are often behaviors that we don't want inside the house! It's important that we give puppies lots of safe opportunities to explore the growing world around them. 

We often start playing more fast paced games in an attempt to tire out our pups and meet their exercise needs. Our walks get longer and longer, our fetch games involve greater distances and gradually increase in duration. Some of this is normal as puppies grow, their needs and abilities increase. Commonly we walk or play until we think our pups are exhausted enough to go to sleep when we are done. Since the pups don't appear tired, we play longer and longer. 

Most owners want to play/exercise with our dogs, then go relax. However it's unrealistic of us to think that our puppies will automatically be able to calm down and relax after lots of excitement and fast paced games. My Relaxation Routine is designed to meet a pup's needs by starting at the excited state your dog is in at the end of play/exercise time and be a role model that guides them slowly to a calm, relaxed state.

Relaxation Routine
1. Start with something fun & exciting such as a walk, fast paced training game, a game of fetch, etc.
2. Take a break! Briefly disengage from your puppy to do what YOU need to do. This should be short! Take your shoes/coat off, use the bathroom, get a drink or anything else you need to do.
3. Have a training session. This will depend on your pup and previous learning. A quick 3 min session of puppy push-ups might be enough for a younger pup. An adolescent might need a longer 15-20 min training session that starts faster, perhaps with a movement puzzle, and ends with something more slow paced such as target practice or heel work. Don't move on to the next stage until you see your pup hitting a more neutral energy state.
4. End with enrichment! This can be anything your dog loves! A stuffed kong, lickmat, snuffle box or other pre-prepared treat can be given in your dog's crate, on their mat/bed, or on a station. This will help your pup calm down to that final state of relaxation where they are simply calm and resting or even sleeping.

One of the things I help all my clients with is developing a Relaxation Routine that is individualized for their family and designed to see that everyone's needs are being met. Email me at if you need help creating a relaxation routine for your dog!


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