Having Realistic Expectations When Setting Your Goals
This can be really challenging for us as dog owners and also for dog trainers! Plan too much for too short of a time and it becomes impossible giving us an excuse to give up. Plan too little and seems like we are not making any headway. Sometimes life gets in the way with unexpected events that slow us down. Sometimes we misjudged our dogs abilities to learn certain things, especially when our dog is an adolescent. Then if you look at every trainer, every owner, & every dog is different we have to accept that a training plan simply can not be a one-size-fits-all plan. Here are a few questions I like to ask myself when creating a plan for my dogs.
- Is the goal achievable in this 3 month plan or is this something that is a long term goal that has a smaller goal of making progress. Let's look at leash manners for example. At 6 months old Azul could heel really well in indoor environments however I never want him to heel the whole way on a trail or exercise walk. This was my outside environment goal for Azul from 6-9 months: Maintain leash manners fitting the environment with consistent training as needed throughout the adolescent phase. Now this is not very specific but was part of an ongoing long term goal. Here are the training guidelines for 6-9 months: 1.1 Continue all basic cues (sit, down, left/right, wait, etc.) that have been taught in previous training plans using the correct leash/tool for each environment. (Management tools of a dual clip harness & leash) 1.2 Continue developing the heel or loose heel position by rewarding when it happens naturally, with games to build value (proximity game), and short training sessions around mild distractions.1.3 Be sure to provide 15-20 minutes of general sniff-a-bouts every day. Allow your dog to process all that is in the environment at their pace. None of these were expected to be perfect by the end of the 3 month period and that is why they didn't include any type of measurement. This is because during adolescence dogs make progress, move backward, with skills varying from day to day and environment to environment. To set measurable goals during this time, would be unrealistic. Instead my goal was to make progress over the 3 month plan moving towards my end goals.
- How challenging is the environment in which we will be training this goal & how many different environments will we be training in? If we are training a totally new skill such as mat/place training and we focusing on mainly teaching this at home, we might achieve the success we are looking at in 3 months. However if we are planning on taking this training into multiple environments as you would do if you were training a Service Dog, you might have an section in the plan that states how many environments or what type of environments. Azul's 6-9 month plan included games that would take place at home to develop cues and build a reinforcement history. Then we would begin to expand into new environments.
- How will I use reinforcement during this stage of the training plan? Often it is easier to use food when training new skills and adding cues to those skills. But once those are learned we want to move toward self reinforcing behaviors or games that provide reinforcement. For Azul's 6-9 month plan under the Mat/Place training goal was a plan to play Hide-n-Seek & Find It games by setting up Azul on his mat, then going to hide me or the object to find, and finally release him to race to his finds. The search behavior is often highly reinforcing and with these games we built a reinforcement history while we were having fun and thus eliminating the need for treats during mat training.
- Is my dog physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared for this goal? We know adolescence is challenging but there also could be other things to consider. I start parkour fun pretty early when a puppy's joints may not be fully developed that means I have to have very low objects for them to practice Paws Up and All The Way Up to prevent injury. Puppies love to climb so its mentally OK and often actually helps puppies to destress because of the fun and teamwork involved. These parkour sessions generally take place at home and might begin to start in other environments but I avoid practicing in environments that might be filled with emotionally distracting stimuli. I made this mistake once when Azul! He had done parkour in and around benches at a local park for a very long time. Then once I wanted to practice on bench in a downtown district that we had not done much training in. In my mind, Azul should have been able to do the skills that he knew very well in that environment however he was much too distracted by the traffic and all the smells in the nearby bushes. He was not mentally or emotionally prepared to have a training session in that moment, nor was my reinforcement a high enough value to grab his attention. We really need to consider physical, mental & emotional needs when training Service Dog tasks as well...Mobility tasks require physical maturity. Medical Alert tasks require mental maturity. And PTSD tasks and those for emotional disabilities absolutely need to wait until the dog is emotionally mature and sound.
Individualized Training Plans
It becomes easy for us to look at videos of that 4 month old puppy walking in a perfect heel for 60 seconds and get upset that our 18 month old dog can't heel for longer than 5 minutes. However there are a few things wrong with that picture.
First that's just a short period of time without showing what was happening the rest of the time.
Second, a 4 month old puppy is still naturally hardwired to follow mom and stay close to mom, whereas your adolescent is hardwired to explore further and further away from the safety of family. That young puppy has a limited sight range, sounds don't hold much value, and smells are only beginning to make sense. Your adolescent has amazingly strong senses of smell (400 times greater then humans), hearing (up to 8 miles away), and sight (prone to catching movement at a large distance) which makes the environmental distractions so much more distracting!
Then of course you need to look at what else has happened to that dog on that day, during that week, during their lifetime? Do they have an emotional experience that leads them down the road of optimism or fear? Do they have a health issue going on? Are they dealing with being trigger stacked or coming down from a moment of extreme excitement? What does the teamwork between dog and owner look like? Is the owner perhaps dealing with a medical issue that they don't even know about yet?
We have to take into account that each human is different and so each dog! We are all unique individuals with experiences, expectations, and habits. That young puppy has less of a history to draw from making it easier for them to learn rapidly, respond quickly and find reinforcement more reinforcing. When building your training plan, you must consider your needs as a human handler and your dog's needs as the individual they are, in order to set your team up for success.
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