I used to teach an intermediate group manners class. It was made up of owners and their dogs that had already taken a puppy kindergarten, and then a puppy level 2 class, so they all had a pretty good foundation of the basics by the time my class started.
At one point in the session, I would try to make recalls more difficult for the dog by having the owners call the dog past a pile of biscuits or toys. When introducing this exercise I would ask the class, “If your dog heads towards the biscuits, what can you do?”
When I first started asking this question, the answers would surprise me. Some people would say things like “yell no”, other people would say they would call the dog a second time, and others would have a deer in the headlights type look on their faces. It wasn’t very often that people would come up with the answer that I was looking for, which was to tell the dog “leave it”. This despite the fact that very often we would have worked on leave it earlier in that class.
What I’ve come to realize is that people know that they need to train their dogs in order to have a well-mannered member of their household. But sometimes those of us who are professionals teaching the owners don’t always do a good enough job explaining how they can incorporate training into their day-to-day lives. Professionals take it for granted because we ourselves have no problem using the things we’ve trained our dogs to do as part of our daily routine. When we see our dogs doing something that annoy us, we come up with a training game plan using behaviors that we’ve already trained our dogs to do.
The answers my students gave to my question showed that they wouldn’t have considered asking for a “leave it”, and that experience changed the way that I ran that particular class. Instead of working on training exercises the way I had always set them up, I started to try to think about how people could actually use them in real life. And then I coordinated the training exercises around that idea.
When you’re initially training your puppy or dog a new behavior, it makes sense to train in planned sessions with few distractions so as to ensure your dog can learn easily and allow them to be successful. But at some point, it makes sense to take the foundation of what your dog knows, and start training so that they can do it in real life. When considering what is the best way to train a dog, we need to consider what we can do so that they learn to perform these behaviors in real life scenarios.
What to train a dog to do, using skills they know
Here are some ideas that may help you get your brain storming cap on, and help you think about other ways that you can use what your dog already knows to make your life easier.
Stay (the dog is placed in a sit or down and remains until given a cue that they are released)
· Putting shoes and jacket on
· Cleaning up a mess
· Filling out paperwork (like at the veterinarian)
· Having a conversation with someone you’ve run into
Leave It (the dog avoids something it is interested in or headed towards)
· When walking past another dog
· When walking past a person – especially when they are carrying something
· When you’re carrying something of interest to your dog
· When you come across something laying on the ground on a walk
· When calling your dog and they start to detour towards something they want to investigate
Go to Mat (the dog lies down on a bed or mat when asked and remains until released)
· When you give your dog something to chew that’s a bit messy
· When cooking to keep your dog from being underfoot
· At mealtimes
Wait (the dog does not cross a doorway threshold or enter a road)
· In the car when you first open the door
· When crossing the road and you need to look both ways
· At the top of the stairs to prevent them from knocking you down
Calling your dog (recalls)
· At the dog park when you know your dog is about to jump on someone
· When your dog is barking in the yard or out the window
· When your dog is chasing something
Before you use what you’ve taught your dog in real life situations, consider if your dog has been trained so that they’re likely to respond to your cues in those situations. Very often we train something in a specific context and assume the dog knows it, only to ask the dog to do it in a very different context and get the response of a blank stare.
How to effectively train a dog to stay while putting on shoes
For instance, if most of the time you practiced stay so that you were standing facing your dog, you shouldn’t expect that your dog will be able to stay if you’re sitting. Additionally, your dog is not likely to stay if you aren’t looking at him.
So, if I wanted my dog to stay when I was putting on my shoes, I would most likely have to train for that specific scenario. And the way I would work on that is to work on steps that lead me to my final goal. My training sequence might look something like this:
I sit, ask the dog to down, ask for a stay, reinforce and release with a total of 1 second stay
I sit, ask the dog to down, ask for a stay, reinforce several times and release – many repetitions of this building duration to about 10 or 15 seconds
I sit, ask the dog to down and stay, bend over as though to pick up a shoe, reinforce and release
Gradually I’d increase the difficulty so that I could get the dog to stay as I put on my shoes. Initially it could require you to stop as you were putting on your shoes, and periodically reinforce the dog for maintaining the stay, but eventually you’d have a dog that could do a brilliant stay for that specific situation.
Initially training your dog during your day will be an inconvenience. Instead of taking a minute to put on your shoes, adding in working on stay may mean it takes 10 minutes, or even longer. But the short-term inconvenience will translate into making your life easier for the life of your dog. The best way to train your dog is to work on that particular skill in the context you intend to use it. Eventually the amount of time spent per training session will be shorter until your dog learns to do a down stay as soon as you pick up your shoes.
How long should you train your dog a day?
Once you start training as part of your day, you won’t have to worry about fit in training sessions of a specific length. Don’t worry about how many times a day should you train your dog, those two minutes here and two minutes there add up, but you don’t need to set aside a particular block of time to do it.
The really wonderful thing about using your dog’s training as part of your routine is that those expectations become routine to the dog. Because they practice them daily, the dog gets extremely good at responding to your cues. The regular practice causes the dog to start responding without even having to think about it, and is therefore the most effective way to train a dog.
This post is not meant to be a dog training instructional, but rather a way to help you think about ways that training can be used in your everyday life. If you aren’t sure how to effectively train a dog so that what they know is functional, you and your dog may benefit from booking a session with a trainer to help get you there.