We aren’t magic. Much as that would make our lives easier. But that’s a good thing because it means that anyone can learn to do what we do. Dog trainers get better results, or results more efficiently, because we’ve honed our skills over the years. The only reason it looks like it comes naturally to an experienced dog trainer is because our skills are fluent. We’ve had a lot of practise. And we still work on making our skills even better.
You can do the same things too. Here’s my 10 reasons dog trainers seem to get better results than the average dog owner.
1. We notice the small stuff
Dog’s body language can be subtle and we notice all those tiny behaviours that tell us when our dog is feeling uncomfortable. Or is getting excited. Or is enjoying what we’re doing. We notice when they are taking longer to respond to a cue, or that they flicked an ear toward another dog. All things that tell us we might need to change what we’re doing.
We don’t come knowing this stuff; we go out and learn it. A good place to start is with Lili Chin’s Doggie Language book.
2. We rarely do things our dog doesn’t like
We avoid putting our dogs in situations they don’t like or don’t yet have the skills to deal with. Using our trainer’s eyes, we watch our dog’s body language through the day and take notice when our dog shows us he doesn’t like something. If we notice our dog doesn’t like to be patted on the head, we stop doing it. Or if our dog isn’t enjoying being brushed, we give him some space and change it up before we do it again. When we notice they don’t like something that we are going to have to do – like grooming, we come up with a plan to deal with it.
3. We train in tiny snippets
Seriously, 5 minutes every day will get you a lot of traction. We really don’t spend hours and hours training our dogs every day. Even in a longer session where we might train 2 or 3 different behaviours, we only train for about a minute at a time. We train hard and fast for a minute, stop, let our dog rest, we review what’s happened, decide what needs to happen next and go again.
You get better results with highly focussed short sessions that end before either you or your dog get tired.
4. We use a high rate of reinforcement
Like super high, especially at first. If our dog isn’t doing something we hate, then we’re considering that good and we’re paying for it.
While we’re at it, we also use different reinforcement – food, attention, access to stuff, play and toys, whatever works for our dog and the behaviour we want to reinforce.
5. We finely slice
We break behaviours down into tiny steps and carefully build the behaviour step by step. And we train one criterion at a time. If we are working on the speed with which our dog returns on recall, you can bet we don’t care about a sit when he gets to us.
6. We use management
We avoid letting our dogs rehearse the stuff we don’t like. That way we don’t have to train every minute of the day. It’s not cheating, it’s a necessary part of training.
7. We pick our battles
We might have a long list of things we’d like to train, but we prioritise because it’s impossible to do all the things at the same time. So we pick a few behaviours that we know will help in a variety of situations and we work on those.
And we come up with other strategies to get the job done sometimes. For instance, Flint isn’t fond of having the feathering on his back legs detangled and trimmed. I use a lickimat stuck to a window so that I can have two hands free to quickly get them combed out while he enjoys licking the cream cheese off the mat. Could I train this the same way as I did for combing his ears out? Sure, but this works well, I can get the job done in a few minutes and there are other higher priorities for us.
8. We do our thinking upfront
We know exactly what behaviours we’re going to train, and we know when we’re going to use them. Working out precisely how we are going to deal with things when they happen means we’re rarely caught unprepared and life runs a lot more smoothly when you’ve already got a plan to deal with the unexpected.
For instance, Flint isn’t a fan of having to navigate small spaces with a bunch of other dogs when he’s on lead, like vet surgery waiting areas. It’s not a situation we’re in very often and when we are he’s probably not going to be feeling great, so even if I trained for it, the training may fall apart when needed because he’s hurt. So my plan is to leave him in my vehicle until it’s our turn to go in, then I use a food transport to get him from the door to the examination room with the minimum of fuss. I know exactly what I’m going to do and how before I even call the vet.
9. We set ourselves and our dogs up for success
Thanks to the upfront thinking we know what we want to happen and we can plan for it. Like putting a pot of treats by the front door so we can reinforce standing beside us instead of rushing out.
Or picking the table in the pub where there’s the space to place a mat in the corner so our dog has his own place to rest without being disturbed by passing people or other dogs.
We will also practise our mechanical training skills without our dog, so we know that *our* behaviours are fluent before we add the complexity of a dog present too. Just like you see agility competitors walking the course beforehand, I do that same for a training session so I know exactly where I’m going to start my dog, what behaviour I’m looking for and clicking for and then how and where I’m going to reinforce that behaviour.
10. We are consistent
Better results come from consistency. We make our training plan and we carry it out every day. We expect the training to take a little time, so we don’t chop and change our method because it hasn’t worked in a single session. And we’re relentless in our pursuit of setting up situations so we can reinforce what we want. We stack the deck in our favour every single time. If it’s not working we bail at the first sign, retreat, reset and repeat. Every single day.
If you could do with some help in developing your trainer brain and eyes, I offer Borrow my Brain sessions. These are great if you need help to tweak your training plan, or you know you want to make the next step in the plan, but you’re not sure how. Or if you want to discuss what’s been going on and get another pair of eyes on it. We can even do a live video feedback if you’ve got footage of your training or the problem situations.
Don’t struggle alone. Get another set of (trainer) eyes on it.