I've written a ton of info this year about setting up your training session for success, but there's something important that I haven't covered yet...
When to End a Training Session
As dog owners and trainers, it's important to make sure we pay attention to other parts of the training session but we commonly overlook the end of the session. Sessions might look something like this:
Planning the steps we will use in the training session. (My fall planning package!)
Setting up the environment with the right distractions.
Picking the best reinforcement for the skill and the environment.
Building some momentum with some activity before the thing we want to train.
Perhaps a reset game.
But what happens when we are done training?
Have you ever noticed what you do at the end of a session?
How about the end of a game or walk?
The End of Session Cue
Many dog trainers suggest using a cue to let your dog know you are done working, playing, training, etc. Sometimes this may vary depending on the activity. If I'm out in the yard, I might end by saying "Let's Go Inside!" If the boys (Cam and Azul) are wrestling, I might end by saying, "That's Enough!" If I thought about it, I'd probably come up with a few more ending cues that I use. Most commonly though, I use "All Done!" at the end of a session, game, or other activity. I used to just hold my hands up in a "stop" fashion but since I'm learning ASL and my hand signal was already close to the official ASL "All Done" sign, I've been switching my dogs cue over to the ASL sign.
You might be wondering why an End of Session cue is important. If you rely on luring your dog into positions as your main method of training, you may not need an End cue. When the luring stops, the behavior stops. But if you use other methods such as capturing and shaping, it can be hard for the dog to know when they are supposed to keep trying or when they are free to go do what they want. If you train your dog to heel or stay for longer periods of time, you need to be able to release them from that behavior. You might use come to release from a stay position, but what if you don't want your dog to come to you instead wanting them to go chase the ball or play with a friend. Service dogs heel for longer periods of time so handlers often train a Free cue or Go Sniff cue to let the dog know they are off duty.
With play, we build up our dog's desire to be with us. But what happens when we are done playing ball and yet they keep returning it to them. Sure we could walk away or go in the house and they'd get the message but a signal makes it easier for us to tell them we are not doing that right now. The same goes for any behavior your dog loves to do so much that they never want to stop. One of my clients has a pup that recently learned to do a hand delivered retrieve and without an End cue the pup was searching the house to find items to retrieve just for fun.
An End cue shouldn't always mean the fun is ending. If your dog loves to play tug and you want them to go potty again before going in the house you give your End cue so they go off to potty then play tug on your way back into the house. This is one of the reasons I let Azul tug on his longline in the driveway. We get home from our walk and he knows I'm heading to the door but he doesn't want the fun sniff-a-bout to end just yet. Sure the tug on the leash slows a down a bit, but it allows me to play with all the way to ramp and our tug game has times when we are standing still with times that we are racing each other. This gets us to the door faster as a game then it would if we had a battle of wills in this moment. It makes us both happy as his antics typically make me laugh. And our rules of the game is this only happens in the driveway. We have a big dirt driveway with lots of room for this game.
If the End cue always means the end of the fun or reinforcement, our dog might start to ignore it. Therefore I always recommend looking at the energy level of your dog then choose a reinforcement or next game that will help them transition into the energy level you are hoping for. If I rushed Azul into the house at the end of a sniff-a-bout, he'd no doubt race in with zoomies in the house. By playing his tug on the leash game, his excitement level goes down slowly before we make it in the door and he's calm before we go in.
When do you END the session?
You'll often hear Trainers say that you need to end on a good note. That is true! But trainers often don't tell you how to make sure you end on a good note. Trainers typically mean end on a positive when your dog and you are working as a team and your happy with the behaviors the dog is giving you. If we just stopped there, that makes it sound easier then it really is.
If your training session is something simple with an easily defined behavior you are working on, perhaps Roll Over, it's easy to tell when the behavior happens correctly. But what if you're working on multiple behaviors such as all the skills you practice when you're out on a walk. (Cues I use often when walking; left/right, stop/wait, heel, walk nice, focus, easy, and many others.) Often the walk ends for the dog when we get back home or reach the car. If our goal is a for a successful walk, how do we as the human know when to head back home or to the car? Some people walk the same path or trail every time they walk so they really don't make a choice to turn and go home, it's just habit.
On a training walk, that has more then just exercise as a goal, we have to determine when our dog has reached their limit for learning in the environment. However if we just turned around there, we would likely push them over their limit before we reached our end destination. So we have to look for those early warning signs; they can't check in as frequently, they might pull more, their excitement level might escalate, and so forth. This is especially important if we are walking a dog that might be fearful in the environment. They might be able to handle passing 1 dog or 4 dogs, but as their bucket fills the more and more dogs that come up get harder and harder to handle. In this case we need to notice our dog's limits and turn around before they hit the middle so they are not over threshold by the time we reach the end.
In some training sessions, we might be working on a totally new behavior. I'm going to use mat training as an example as this is a common behavior. In the early stages of mat training we often ask the dog to get on the mat for brief period and get back off to reset, repeating the behavior of getting on. Then we add to the behavior to increase the time they stay on the mat, often starting with adding seconds. Then we add to it again to increase the distance we walk away from the mat while the dog stays on the mat. We might even add to again by adding in other behaviors while the dog is on the mat. However if we make a mat training session go on too long, it can build frustration for the dog which can cause them to leave the mat and being unwilling to participate in the training. We want to End a mat training session way before we hit that stage.
When you are using a shaping plan that your Trainer gave you, sometimes you have a goal in mind..."If we can just get to Step #5, we can stop there." Or you might have a measured time frame in mind..."If we train for 15 minutes." Sometimes we might be tempted to use our reinforcement to control our time spent in training..."We will train till you've earned all these treats." There is a big flaw in all of these reasons to End a session...we are not paying attention to the dog we are training or their ability to learn in that moment.
If we want to end the session on a good note, we have to pay attention to the dog and work the dog in front of us. In mat training, if we wait too long in between giving reinforcement, our dog might move off the mat in an attempt to earn the reinforcement faster. If we step back a bit to far, our dog might want to come to us. And if we do the mat behavior successfully and reset the dog moving them off the mat for a few moments and back on, we might reset too many times. The dog may become bored with repeating the on the mat, off the mat, on the mat, off the mat.
It's really important that we notice the little things our dog is telling us about when to end a training session. We might observe subtle body language cues such as stretching, yawning, licking. The dog might do behaviors they know we don't like such as barking at us, nipping our hands, or chewing on the mat. When doing this the dog is basically telling us that even negative reinforcement is better then no reinforcement, which is not how we want to End a training session.
It's also important to get ask our dogs to participate in a session, which also means they have the freedom to opt out at any given moment. When I was teaching retrieve to Talia & Isis, Cam would opt out and go lay on the couch because retrieving was frustrating to him. I had to take Cam into a low distraction, happy environment without the other dogs and break the retrieve steps down into tiny baby steps where he could earn rapid reinforcement. Now that Cam knows how to do the behavior, he doesn't have the problem doing it around distractions but in the learning stage distractions where a huge reason for him to opt out of training. Cam also chooses to opt out of training if the tone of my voice gets to stern or I begin getting frustrated. Azul opts out if my choice of reinforcement is not something he wants in the moment. Any session that ends in our dogs opting out of the session has a negative impact on the dog's confidence and what we were trying to accomplish during the session. We always want to end the session with the dog fully engaged with us and having fun. This way they learn more from that session.
Pushing the Envelope
To use a common analogy, in most sessions we want to push us dogs slightly to advance their skills. After all if we get stuck on the mat giving reinforcement every 3 seconds and never stretch that time, we end up bribing our dog to stay there which is not what we want as an end goal and it gets frustrating for us.
Another good example is training a dog in public spaces. Trainers say, keep the sessions short...5 min, 10 min, 15 min and build up slowly. Again it's important to look at the dog we are training! We need to notice the subtle things our dogs do during that session. They may be able to do a 20 min session most days, then all of sudden we are in a new environment, there is an increase in distractions, or maybe we didn't give the dog enough time to sniff before we went in so they have to potty. All of these things if left unnoticed, will cause a session to end badly!
We want to notice the subtle body language our dog is offering. This can be struggling to do well known behaviors such as having a really loose heel, unable to sit on cue, lack of focus on handler, sniffing things more then normal and so forth. We might also notice a change in their body language as far as their tail might go down slightly more then normal, their mouth might get tight around the edges, or their ears might be back or tighter then normal. Mild stress signals might mean you're starting to push that envelope and it's time to end before things go in the wrong direction. If I've been in a store too long or distractions are too high, Azul will do a deep sigh. It's not loud or offensive to others, but that's his way of saying, "Let's go already!" It doesn't happen much now that he's older, but when he was younger, Azul could easily get bored in the same place for long periods.
Avoiding the Shut Down
I already discussed a bit about allowing our dogs to opt out of a session. Sometimes the environment doesn't really allow an opt out option. If we are still blocks away from home on our walk, we can't simply end the walk there unless we have a ride we can call for help. When we try to accomplish a goal such as grabbing groceries with a Service Dog in Training, it might be challenging to just leave. We have to take a moment to pay for our items. Yet those last few minutes can run the whole session if we don't handle them correctly. This is why it's super important to learn our dog's subtle signals.
What can we do when we notice those signals and we need to push it just a bit longer? Of course this is going to depend on the situation we are in. On walk and few blocks from home, we might be able to pause for a drink or sit in the shade a few minutes. The same goes for a Service Dog in Training who is struggling to focus, a quiet corner for a short down stay might save the day.
Sometimes taking a rest is not the answer. Our dog might be having trouble focusing on what we want and we can make a change to help them. I like to break up a boring or slow paced training session with a game. If my dog is struggling with enough focus to be able to maintain a heel, playing my positions game gets them rapidly moving around me with a high rate of reinforcement for a short period. Then they may be able to focus a bit longer to help us finish our session on a good note. Azul can struggle with wanting to check in along with pulling on the leash on some walks because he is over-excited by all the distractions along our path. Changing directions, going down a different trail or a short rabbit trail where he can follow his nose a bit often helps. Changing your speed can help too; slowing down, speeding up, spinning in a circle, etc. Anything that changes what you were doing before can help you to finish up your session ending on a positive note instead of ending with frustration.
Another good trick to have up a your sleeve is some high level reinforcement. Perhaps something unpredictable happens such as dog charging you aggressively, a loud noise, or something falling close to you. Our end goal is that our dogs are resilient enough to handle these things with style. However if too many unpredictable things happen, this can push our dog over threshold real quick and end a training session in a negative way. Being prepared with high level reinforcement that we can pull out when the unexpected happens can help our dogs to build up positive associations with unexpected occurrences. We can sometimes also use high level reinforcement to lure our dogs away from a distraction that they have not been prepared for. You stumble across a half eaten slice of pizza (it happened to us a few days ago) and while your dog may be able to leave low value items on cue, that is simply too tempting. A high value reinforcement hidden in your treat bag can be come a lure and rapid reward for leaving the found item. Every now and then our dogs surprise us by doing a behavior we love but didn't expect in that training session. When that happens we want a high level reinforcement available so our dog will offer that great behavior more often.
All of these redirection activities we can do to help our dogs finish strong are dependent on our ability to know when and how to use the redirections the most effectively. If your dog is over-excited, a highly exciting activity is probably not going to help them calm down. You might need to be momentarily more exciting then the distraction to lure your dog to safety, but then you need to do something to bring them back down to a manageable excitement level. If your dog is tired, a rest is in order but if they are bored and yawning to show that, a rest will only make them more unsettled.
Dogs have very common body language before big reactions happen. But we have notice their smaller body language signals to implement redirection techniques before the big outbursts happen. And the subtle signals often vary from dog to dog. Sometimes breed traits can help you learn some subtle signals, but not all of them. If you are following a teamwork based training style, you hit a point where you can almost feel what your dog needs and when they need it. We can also teach our dogs to tell us certain things; they need to potty, they want to play, or the owner needs to be aware of on oncoming medical issue. Azul knows a Paws Up in the house means he wants to go outside, a nose nudge on my leg means a migraine is coming, a chin rest on my lap means he's bored or wants us to follow him, etc. These are signals that we've repeated together on a regular basis so that we both understand what the signals mean. But if you are not at the level of teamwork yet, work with a trainer that understands canine body language and behavior that can help you learn what your dog is telling you and teach you ways to communicate more effectively with your dog.
What this training session with Cam and let me know how mistakes you see. There is a big one near the end!
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