I frequently get the question "How do I teach my dog to (insert skill here)? The fact is that, like people, not every dog learns the same way. We have come to realize that every dog has a unique cognitive makeup which means that there is no single, universal, step-by-step way to teach a dog a skill and guarantee that it will work for all dogs. (If you want more on dog cognition, check out The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than youThink by Vanessa Wood and Brian Hare). But there ARE basic things that you can do that will increase your success regardless of how your dog learns.
1) Make a plan!
Don't just start training! Be sure you think about what you are going to do BEFORE you work with your dog. What skill(s) will you work on? What rewards/penalties will you use? What proficiency level warrants a reward? After all, if you are not clear in your own mind about what you expect from a training session, how is your pup supposed to figure it out?! Establish your teaching structure before you start the hands-on work.
2) Be flexible
Even though you have a plan, be ready to adjust things on the fly! Don't allow your dog to continually "fail" because you are not flexible in what your are asking or how you are asking for it! If, for whatever reason, your dog who could bore holes in your face with his eyes for 15 seconds because he was so focused can barely maintain eye contact for 2 seconds today -- stop expecting 15 seconds!!! Start rewarding for 2 seconds of focus, This serves two purposes . . . first, your dog is having a positive training experience so you are building confidence and positive associations with you AND training sessions. Second, you avoid getting irritated and labeling your dog as "stubborn" or difficult. Every creature has good days and bad days -- just because your dog had a higher level of proficiency earlier does not mean that the skill is solid or that they are little robots and will ALWAYS perform perfectly!!! Which brings me to the next tip.
3) Have realistic expectations
Your dog is a living, breathing creature -- NOT an infallible machine. Just because your dog knows how to sit does not mean it understands to do it when you say the word "sit". Even if they understand what the cue means, it doesn't mean they will do it perfectly every time. (What if you are asking them to sit on a cold surface? They may, understandably, refuse completely or sit but pop up again immediately.) Sometimes, our expectations do not take into consideration that our dogs have needs as well and if we want their best behavior, we need to be realistic about what we are asking them to do for us and when. Going back the to focus . . . even if your dog can always hold eye contact for 15 seconds when they are at home does not mean that they can do that when you are in a park with dogs and kids playing around them! Be realistic and adjust your expectations to the situation and gradually build your dog's proficiency around higher and higher challenges.
4) Control your frustration
This does not mean "be perfect" -- after all, if you are going to allow your dog to make mistakes, you should give yourself the same courtesy. Frustration happens . . . but you should avoid letting it affect your training session. If you find yourself getting frustrated, change your plan and your expectations. Take a moment and analyse what is happening. Are you confusing your dog by mixing cues? Is there another way you can communicate to your dog what you want from them? Is what you are doing too much of a leap for the dog to make -- do you need to break the skill down further? If you find that your frustration is getting the better of you, ask the dog for something that you KNOW it can do and end the training session on success. One I like to do is get the dog's attention (I am purposely being vague here). Name recognition is something that is usually fixed very early in the relationship and only requires the dog to acknowledge that you are addressing them. So, I say the name and if the dog gives me a split second of attention that is a success! It is asking for very little from the dog AND further reinforces the dog responding to their name.
5) Make it fun
We frequently make the mistake of classifying "training time" with our dogs as "WORK" and viewing success as the dog consistently getting better at doing what we say, when we say it. But we also expect our dogs to be a source of joy and relaxation in our lives -- that can be difficult to achieve if the time spent training is "work" that is measured by performance standards. Speaking generally, dogs want to please us and make us happy (this is not universal, but THAT is a discussion for another post). Sure, from the point of the "student" it is better to learn in a fun and engaging way, but this is also true of the "teacher". If you enjoy the "game" of training, your dog will be more engaged and WANT to train with you. Remember this when you make your plan -- create a training plan that is fun for both you and your dog! Enjoy yourself and each other!