If we want to understand how to enjoy successful training with our dogs we think it is important to first define what success looks like.
For an eight week old puppy, success may look like a day, two days, or even a week without an accident in the house while potty training. For a two year old dog learning to compete in agility, it may look like the first successful completion of an agility course linking all the obstacles together for the first time. Getting to each point requires clients and trainers to be “set up for success.”
Shaping is a word we use regularly in dog training. It refers to, over time, achieving a desired behavior. For instance, we want our dog to sit when people come over and have them wait for us to tell them to “go say hi” without jumping all over our guests. Well, a dog that has not learned to sit around even the smallest of distractions isn’t ready or set up for success when the doorbell rings for a Super Bowl party and the whole family comes rushing in. How do we get there? We “shape” the behavior over time. First, teaching the dog to sit with little to no distractions, then, over time, we increase the difficulty level (distractions and new environments) in which we are asking the dog to display this behavior. Knowing when to challenge our dogs with more distractions and new environments is a key part of this process. All too often we ask too much of our four legged friends too soon, and it is unfair and unrealistic for us to believe they can follow through without taking the proper steps to get there.
Have you ever been to a dog park and listened to an owner say Fluffy! “sit!,” “sit!,” “sit!,” “sit!” when Fluffy is taking off to go say hi to all his/her friends? Well there’s a good chance that Fluffy isn’t ready for the challenge of sitting at a park with so much going on, and likely, Fluffy’s owner isn’t in a position to follow through with the command that he/she is asking of her (the leash may be off and they may be standing half way across the park, for example). There may have been a different outcome had Fluffy learned to sit with one or two dogs in a controlled environment and been eased into such a distracting and stimulating situation.
There’s a saying that is not unique to us, but rather the entirety of the dog training community; “Never ask your dog to do anything without first being in a position to follow through.” If we are going to ask Fluffy to “come,” we should probably have a few things in place: the right amount of distractions (if any at all), a leash (physical connection to Fluffy used to help cue her) and a reward to “mark” her successful completion of said behavior.
Success largely boils down to our ability to manage our expectations, realize our dogs current abilities (knowing when and how to challenge them), and patiently shaping each behavior over time. Achieving our end state goals with training takes time, but with proper motivation, great timing, and a ton of repetition, we can achieve all kinds of success along the way to a lasting, obedient relationship with our canine companions. The more consistent you are, the quicker you will see results. Inconsistency breeds inconsistent results. If you're asking too much of your dog on a regular basis, or are not able to follow through, your dog may be learning the opposite of what you're intending to teach (ex. "come" means catch me if you can!).
Be consistent, have great timing, and be in a position to follow through. Reward small amounts of success along the way! If you’re frustrated, your dog is going to be frustrated as well. Generally speaking our dogs have a desire to please and training should be fun and rewarding for all involved. Know when to ask for help, we all have to raise our hands at some point when we are stuck or ask for a second opinion. There's always a chance you may not have been far off!