Updated: Dec 28, 2022
If you’re anything like me, you “can’t wait to get there”. Sometimes in my effort to get to my destination, I forget to look out the window and enjoy the view. And this applies whether I’m traveling somewhere, doing a home improvement project, or training a dog to do something.
With training in particular, I’ve had to learn to enjoy the process of watching my dog figure it out. I’ve had to learn to enjoy watching my dogs have fun during the training. And mostly I’ve had to learn how to celebrate the small wins.
When I started working with my dog Quinn on his dog reactivity issues, I couldn’t wait until I could take him for a walk without his lunging and barking at other dogs. It was a bit frustrating to put in a lot of work and still see him lose control when other dogs walked past us. It seemed as though we’d never get to the point where I would be able to walk past another owner with a dog on a hiking trail without worrying about Quinn losing control.
But then one day I realized that he was able to focus on me even with a dog on the other side of the street. Before we started training, seeing a dog even at that distance would have caused him to start barking and I would have had trouble getting his attention back on me. And at that point it occurred to me that we had made some progress, and I started to realize I needed to celebrate those little successes. My goals of dog training weren’t just the end result, they were the smaller gains too.
Setting dog training goals
Instead of looking at the end goal, it can be helpful to think of setting dog training goals as trying to reach a bunch of little milestones. I didn’t make this up. There are actually definitions for this type of goal setting. Outcome goals are the goals that you think of as being the final product. Process goals are the goals that are the stepping stones to your final result.
The problem with only focusing on your outcome goal is that it may be such a big objective that may require you to work hard for a long period of time before you even get there. It’s easy to become discouraged when you put in work for a while and have barely made a dent towards getting to the desired outcome.
There are a lot of advantages to placing more of your focus on the smaller goals in your journey, making those part of your dog training objectives, rather than only keeping your eye on the big prize at the end.
Reaching a smaller goal builds confidence in both you and your dog!
When you reach a smaller goal, it makes you feel successful that you’ve accomplished something through all of your hard work. It motivates you to want to keep going.
Being proud of reaching those smaller dog training objectives helps you create a habit of continuing your training.
Reaching smaller goals for dog training validates that what you’re doing is actually working.
Celebrating the little successes helps keep you in the game. It’s a way to motivate yourself to keep going. Additionally, celebrating those small milestones can help prevent you from becoming frustrated about your dog’s behavior, and instead become proud of their achievements.
When we talk about training or behavior, oftentimes you’ll hear a discussion about the training technique called shaping. Shaping essentially means that you are training your dog by breaking the behavior down into little steps that your dog can easily achieve, eventually reaching the final behavior. When using shaping your goal is to make sure your dog can be successful, prevent them from being frustrated, and give them the most efficient way to learn. This is essentially a process goal. Smart dog trainer goals include celebrating every time the dog is able to accomplish one of the shaping steps.
Dog training objectives in dog separation anxiety training
But celebrating the achievement of process goals also works really well when we’re talking about using desensitization for treating dog separation anxiety. With desensitization our goal is to always keep the dog from exhibiting anxiety, while gradually increasing the amount of time that they’re able to comfortably be left alone. It can be really hard for an owner to work through the very slow-moving process and feel as though they’re not making much, if any progress.
Because we want to be sure that the dog will be able to be successful with any owner absences, the amount of time that is increased is always minimal. We want to ensure the dog doesn’t even notice that the owner has been gone for an even longer duration than the previous session. When working with separation anxiety, a typical training plan’s longest absence may look something like this at the beginning:
Session 1: 10 seconds
Session 2: 12 seconds
Session 3: 14 seconds
Session 4: 17 seconds
Session 5: 20 seconds
To an owner it may look like they put a week’s worth of work in and only gained an extra 10 seconds. But a better way of looking at it would be that they put a week’s worth of work in and their dog is now able to cope with double the amount of time that they started with!
When someone has a dog who is suffering from separation anxiety, their ultimate goal may be to be able to leave the dog alone while they go to work for eight or nine hours. Depending on the dog, that could take quite a long time to achieve. The saying in separation anxiety treatment is “Think months, not years.”
While that end goal is valid, I encourage owners not to keep their only focus on it. Instead, I encourage owners to celebrate the small wins, and include those as goals for dog training. Setting dog training goals in separation anxiety training may include:
When you’re able to be gone for five minutes with your dog feeling comfortable, maybe you can now take the garbage out.
After 10 minutes maybe you can have a short talk with the neighbor in the backyard.
When you get to ½ an hour perhaps you can run out to a restaurant in pick up carry out.
Part of my job as a dog trainer is to use my knowledge and expertise to help my clients work with their dogs in a way that is going to resolve the issue. But another part, a big part, is to encourage my clients and keep them motivated so that they will continue to work with their dogs. When a person gets frustrated at the lack of what they think is sufficient progress, their motivation levels go way down. If I can help them see that achieving smaller dog training objectives are a cause for celebration, I can help them stay in the game and work their way towards the big, final goal.