This is a question that we get a lot. Sometimes the variations are a little different, but the intention is always the same. “How many sessions will it take” “What is the timeline for this training”. Most of the time people are looking for a concrete answer and timeline to tell them when their dog will be perfect and completely trained. Short answer? Never.
There is no such thing as a fully trained dog. Just like us, our dogs are never done learning. There is always something new to learn. The better question to ask is, “when will we reach our goals”. The answer to that one is a bit longer.
Really, when you are working towards a goal with your dog, you are the biggest variable. How dedicated to the homework are you? How often will you practice? How often will you make mistakes?
Typically your biggest obstacle to reaching your goals with your dog is real life. It gets in the way and makes setting aside time for training difficult. You come home from a long day at work and you need to make dinner, clean the house, take care of the kids, and still train and walk the dog. It’s a lot to take care of and the dog is the easiest thing to let slip. It makes sense!
So how do we keep our dogs on track so that we can reach our goals, without killing ourselves?
First, we want to make sure we are setting realistic goals to begin with. Sometimes our eyes can be a little bigger than our stomachs when it comes to setting goals and we tend to focus too much on the big flashy behaviors versus the realistic ones. Agility is a great example for this. We get so focused on running full courses with our dogs and doing all of the cool impressive stuff, that we get impatient and skip steps when teaching the obstacle foundations. This creates problems later on because without the foundation, our dog isn’t able to understand the full complex final behavior. In agility specifically this can also lead to serious injuries for our dogs.
When setting goals it is important to set multiple goals. I like to set a long term goal, and then break that into smaller achievable steps. Let’s use “place” as an example.
Long Term Goal: Dog stays on Place while guests enter the home.
Goal #1: Dog happily goes to mat and lays down when they see it.
Goal #2: Dog goes to mat and lays down on cue.
Goal #3: Dog is able to go to mat on cue and stay there while owner moves around the room.
Goal #4: Dog is able to go to mat on cue and stay there while owner moves out of sight.
Goal #5: Dog is able to go to mat on cue and stay there while owner opens a door to no one.
Goal #6: Dog is able to go to mat on cue and stay there while owner opens a door to a person standing quietly who enters while dog maintains position on mat.
Goal #7: Dog is able to easily go to place after the doorbell rings.
Goal #8: Dog is able to easily go to place after the doorbell rings and stay there while owner opens door to no one.
Goal #9: Dog is able to easily go to place after the doorbell rings and stay there while owner opens door and welcomes guest.
Each of those goals could even be broken down further, if you were so inclined. Setting smaller incremental goals will help make your training path clear, as well as help you feel successful. If we only focus on the long term, large goal it is easy to feel bogged down and like you are not making progress. Having smaller steps to be able to check off helps us feel like we are accomplishing something and makes it more likely that we will keep going.
Once your goals are clearly set, the most important part is figuring out how to fit your training into your daily life. There are lots of different ways you can do this, and it’s up to you to determine what will fit best into your daily routine.
Multiple short sessions throughout the day - this is my preferred method of fitting training into my day. I try to do two 10 minute sessions per day with at least two of my dogs. I find that 10 minute bites are easy to fit into my day without interrupting too much or taking too long. If 10 minutes is too long, you can even try 5 minute sessions and just fit them in when you can.
A designated number of treats per skill per day. This is a nice way of practicing your skills and majorly taking the pressure off. Say you set the goal of 10 treats per skill per day and you are working on three skills. That’s only 30 treats per day! You have a spare moment? Grab 10 treats and work on a skill. You would be surprised at how quickly you go through 10 treats.
Practice a skill while you do something else. This is the easiest to do with stay skills like your general stays or place. While you are busy doing things, like making dinner for example, you can practice your dog holding down stays or their place while you intermittently reward.
No matter which path you pick, the most important part is to have a plan. If you have a plan you know what to do! Whenever you set a training plan it is important to schedule days off as well. Sometimes our dogs learn best when they get a break.
When it really comes down to it, it is completely up to you on when you will reach your goals with your dog. Realistically we do not expect to be with you until the bitter end. Our job is not to hold your hand until you reach your goals. Our job is to give you the skills to complete your goals without us.