If you have ever worked with a talented professional dog trainer, there is a good chance he or she probably demonstrated a technique to you and made it look easy. The trainer then explained the intricacies of what you should do to duplicate the techniques, handed the leash over to you, and your dog didn’t do anything that you wanted! Sound familiar? What does a skilled professional dog trainer do to make this “magic” occur? Is it magic? Is there something that the dog trainer has that you just will never have? Should you give up right now?
No, it is not magic. You should follow some basic principles of dog training and practice, practice, practice. I always tell my clients that if I were to show up at their job on Monday it would take longer than one hour until I could do their job! Dog training is a skill that requires time and attention to master. I have trained thousands of dogs and I learn something new from every single session, even if I have worked with the dog multiple times.
I just finished a great first session with a wonderful client that has a dog with reactivity towards some people and dogs. We went for a walk, I used strategies that I have been practicing for years and my client said her dog was much calmer and less reactive than if she were holding the leash. She asked me what I did to achieve these results. This case dealt with aggression and reactivity, but the training strategies are the same regardless of what behaviors you want to work on with your dog.
Proper timing will speed up learning and lessen confusion. If you are working on teaching your dog to lie down and reward him when he is standing up, you could confuse him. Reward the behavior that you want at the instant it is happening. One way to improve your timing is to use a clicker. A clicker is a positive reinforcement training tool that is incredibly effective if used properly.
The best laid training plans can get derailed by a trainer that has inappropriate expectations. Your dog will learn much faster if you break down the training goals into small segments and work on those segments incrementally in each training session. Keep in mind that dogs do not generalize behaviors well. This means that if you teach your dog to “Sit” in the kitchen you can’t expect him to “Sit” in the living room until you have taught him in that location. If you go outside near distractions, you need to lower your expecations even more.
A skilled trainer will be able to read what a dog wants at any given moment and use that as a reward. For instance, if a dog wants to go say “hello” to another dog, work on training at a distance that allows the dog to focus on you. Once you get a behavior that you like, allow your dog to greet the other dog. But, don’t miss an opportunity to ask for another behavior such as “Come” while your dog is playing with the other dog and gently guide him to you.
Once he comes to you, allow him to go back and play. You are helping your dog realize that if he performs your requests, good things happen. I even use tree-sniffing as an opportunity for training. “Watch me – Thank you, now you can go sniff”. Motivation, in my opinion, is the most fascinating topic and is very complex. What motivates any animal to do anything? That is not always easy to answer, but is always important to consider when working with a dog.
This has already been addressed briefly, but it is an important topic. The novice trainer might get frustrated if a dog doesn’t repeat a behavior around distractions. Learning how to focus around distractions takes time and skill. If your dog is distracted, move away from the distraction until your dog can perform a behavior and then try again at a closer distance. Even if the behavior that you ask for is less difficult than your long-term goal, (maybe you ask for a “Sit” instead of a “Down”) you have to start somewhere and teach your dog to focus around distractions.
This comes from knowing that the strategies that you are using will work. Someone can promise that they will, but until you see if for yourself you will not be entirely confident that the strategies will work. This takes time and practice. Pay attention to what works and that will improve your confidence.
To be an effective trainer, you should be 100% focused on your dog. All of the above recommendations can’t be accomplished without focus. It is so much better to practice short, focused training sessions a few times a day, than long sessions where you are not focused and miss a lot of what is happening in front of you. The final thought I want to leave you with is that training should be fun. If you ever feel frustrated, take a break and come back in a few minutes or another day. If you constantly feel frustrated, enlist the help of a skilled professional positive reinforcement trainer to help. My clients are often amazed at what they can learn in a short time.