The most effective trainers have a plan in place before they start training a dog. Exciting? No. Effective. Yes!
Let’s say you want to teach your dog better leash manners. Before you pick up the leash and treat bag, before you even call your dog over to start the training session, ask yourself these four questions:
WHAT AM I GOING TO USE FOR A REWARD?
If you're using treats, what kind of treats? Does your dog do backflips for them? Are they crunchy or soft? Are they easy to break into small pieces (your dog only needs a taste)? Are they square or round? What about something super high-value, like baby food from a squeeze pouch?
If your dog has already learned leash manners and you just want to practice, are you going to start to integrate non-food rewards? What will those be? Does your dog LOVE them? More importantly, does your dog love them as much on walks as he does at home?
I love this little video by Elissa Cline, demonstrating her Belgian Malinois practicing a beautiful heel and being rewarded with – get this – a pine cone. (BTW, a Paco Collar is not some new form of correction collar, but the gorgeous leather collar you see in the video).
And don't forget, your dog decides what's rewarding. I think Parker would have killed me in my sleep long ago if I'd tried to use praise/petting as a reward!
As you can see, “treats” and “rewards” aren’t as simple as we think and they aren't necessarily the same.
HOW WILL I DELIVER THE REWARD?
There is, of course, the standard hand-to-mouth delivery (or, in the olden days, some filled their mouths with hot dogs that they spit at the dog...just don’t blame me if you choke). You can also deliver rewards by tossing them away from you. You might have the reward come from a helper, instead of from you. You might place the reward in a pre-designated location on your walk, so that your dog can be rewarded with a “found” treat (OMGOMGOMG, so much YUM).
WHEN AM I GOING TO REWARD?
Are you going to reward your dog when he/she is in heel position and looking at you? Or are you going to click/treat any time you get the slightest bit of slack in the leash? Are you going to reward your dog while she is walking in position, or only after she comes back to you after feeling the leash go tight? Are you going to stand still and click/treat the moment she puts the slightest bit of slack in the leash?
Once you pick your criteria, ask yourself how many times you’ll reward it before ending the session or taking a quick break? Three repetitions, five, fifteen? The answer depends on your dog. My over-thinking-everything-all-the-time Border Collie does best with three repetitions, then a break. Breaks can be long or short, but they allow me to evaluate my criteria and decide if I need to make it harder or easier.
Determining your rewardable criteria in advance speeds learning and reduces frustration…for everyone!
WHERE WILL YOU DELIVER THE REWARD?
I have seen so many dog owners work really, really hard on reinforcing good leash manners, only to end up with a dog who “crabs” in front (crossing in front of them). They want their dog on their left side, but reward from their right hand, not really paying attention to the fact that they are essentially luring the dog in front of them.
If the dog is in perfect heel position, you want to deliver the reward directly to them, to keep them there. If your dog has a tendency to surge in front of you, you might deliver the treat by dropping it on the ground just behind you. If your dog has a tendency to lag, you might deliver the treat by tossing it a foot in front of you.
Think about the behavior you want and what it will look like. Now, ask yourself where you can deliver the treat to help your dog achieve that.
Sometimes, you want to deliver the reward away from you, which sets your dog up to repeat the behavior. I do this sometimes when first helping a dog discover the heel position. With the dog off-leash, I walk around the house or yard, frequently changing direction. When the dog finds himself at my side, I click, then toss the treat away from me and change direction. Soon, the dog is running to my side. Now, I can start delivering the treats in the heel position.
This is where a clicker/marker really comes in handy. You can click your dog for being in the right position, then deliver the reward in a different location.
GOOD TRAINING STARTS WITH GOOD PLANNING
The more thoughtful you are about the What, How, When, and Where of your training sessions, the faster progress you and your dog will make.
Now, it may not make for exciting television to watch a trainer sit down at a desk and plot out their next training session, but then reality television hasn’t given us any examples of impressive training, either.
“Errors are not necessary for learning to occur. Errors are not a function of learning or vice-versa nor are they blamed on the learner. Errors are a function of poor analysis of behavior, a poorly designed shaping program, moving too fast from step to step in the program, and the lack of the prerequisite behavior necessary for success in the program." –BF Skinner