Being a dog trainer is fun, rewarding, and sometimes not very easy! I started training my first dog in 1995 and started training other people and their dogs in 2008. There are certain things that I am constantly reminding both my students and myself, so I decided to put together a list of the 10 most important tips to being a successful dog trainer. These tips are not in any particular order of importance.
Breaking Down Behaviors
This is SO important! We often teach behaviors in chunks that may be hard for the dog to grasp. Have you heard of the phrase “be a splitter, not a lumper”? That famous quote by renowned animal trainer Bob Bailey should always be remembered by us as dog trainers!
If your dog is struggling with a behavior, try to break it down further. How can you split the steps smaller? Think about which parts of your dog has to move and in which direction. Is there a prop or prompt that you can utilize? Can you set up the environment to make the behavior more likely to happen? Really thinking through how we can break down a behavior is very helpful for both our dogs and us!
Is Your Dog Ready?
It doesn’t do much good to train a dog that is not there mentally, does it? I’m sure you’ve been there, pleading with your dog for attention while he or she is staring at the kids running around or the squirrel in the tree. In order for your dog to learn and perform, he or she needs to be a willing and engaged partner.
Have some sort of routine so that the dog can you if he or she is ready to work. I want my dog to offer me trained behaviors to start the session. Here’s a great blog by Shade Whitesel talking about how she asks her dogs if they are ready to work.
Train the Dog in Front of You
This one seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s something we struggle with a lot as dog trainers. Maybe your dog isn’t working as well as she did yesterday and it’s frustrating for you. Instead of comparing your dog to the one you had yesterday, you need to work with the dog you have right now. Comparing your dog to another dog is also very unhelpful. Maybe your dog’s litter brother is running in master agility, but him and your dog are different. Work with the one you have.
Avoid Long Sessions and Lots of Repetition
Another obvious one, but how many times do we say “just one more” or “last one”? And what always happens when we utter those words? The dog doesn’t perform as expected. Dogs don’t like a ton of reps, especially when they are doing well. If the dog is performing nicely and we keep repeating it, many dogs will start to offer other behaviors thinking that he or she was wrong. If I get a couple amazing reps of a behavior, I move on.
It’s also super easy to train too long! Training is hard work, and should be done in short sessions. Next time you bring your dog out, video your session. Aim to train for about 2 minutes and without looking at your timer, stop the session when you think 2 minutes have passed. Most likely, the video will show you that you trained longer than 2 minutes! I can’t tell you the number of times I tried for a 2 minute session and when I review the video, I find the session was 5 or 6 minutes long!
I have two suggestions for this. First, set a timer that will make a noise after the allotted time. Second, count out a certain number of treats and when your treats are gone, that session is over.
Imagine that you’re an action photographer. You have a fraction of a second to take the photo when your subject is in the perfect place. What happens if you’re late? You miss the shot! You missed the opportunity!
The same thing happens in dog training. If you’re trying to mark a particular behavior but your timing is late, what did you mark? Let’s say you’re teaching your puppy to sit. Your rambunctious little pup doesn’t sit still for long, but he offers you a sit for about ¼ of a second before bouncing up. You say yes but it’s ¼ of a second late. What did you mark? Probably the dog getting up! The pup now has earned reinforcement for getting out of the sit, which is not what you want. Now it will be a little more difficult to show your dog what behavior you’re trying to teach.
Thankfully, you can practice your timing without your dog!! Hold up your palm and have a family member touch it. Try to mark exactly when your palm is touched, not when the person is moving away. Bounce a tennis ball on the floor or a table and mark when it hits. Turn on our faucet just a tiny bit and mark when the water drips into the sink. Good timing is about anticipation, so think about marking slightly early.
Have a Training Plan
Your training plan doesn’t need to be elaborate. It doesn’t even need to be written down. But you should have thought about what you’re going to work on and for how long before you start training. Have a rough idea about how many reps you want to do. Stick to that plan, even if things go poorly during your session. You don’t want to keep training longer if things aren’t going well. Instead, finish the session and come up with a plan for the next one that incorporates how you will handle the struggles your dog was having.
Have a Plan for Mistakes
No matter how good your plan, sometimes things aren’t going to go as you anticipate. Your dog will make mistakes, and having a rough idea of how you will handle the mistake will only help you both.
My mantra is, “if in doubt, throw a reset treat!” Two things I work hard not to do: leave my dog hanging while I think “what do I do?” and continuing to cue the behavior that the dog is struggling with without changing something to help the dog be successful. If my dog makes 2 mistakes in a row, I set up the next rep in such a way that my dog is super likely to be successful.
One other tip here – it’s okay to quit early! If your session is going horribly and you are frustrated, I give you permission to toss a treat and end the session. You will do far less damage walking away before you get a “success” than continuing to train so you can “end on a good note.”
Don’t Disconnect Between Reps
We want our dogs to stay engaged with us while training, so it’s important we do the same. Time and time again I’ve seen trainers reward the dog then turn completely away from the dog to set up the next rep. All this does is teach our dogs to disconnect after rewards and between reps. I want my dog to stay 100% engaged with me the entire training session. If I need to put my attention elsewhere in the middle of a session, I will put the dog on a station or a relaxed down stay.
Dog training takes a lot of patience! Sometimes our dogs don’t get it as quickly as we’d like, or sometimes they are slow to offer behaviors. Often we just have to be patient and let the dog figure it out. Training your dog takes the time that it takes. You can try to speed that up by being a really good dog trainer, but you still need patience.
The Dog is Never Wrong
Repeat to yourself, “the dog is never wrong!” Dogs don’t wake up in the morning saying, “I am going to refuse to sit today to make my mom mad because she left me for 6 hours yesterday!” Dogs aren’t deliberately bad. They can appear to be naughty, but they are doing it because they don’t understand the behavior. It hasn’t been taught well enough by you, the trainer! Or perhaps you are asking for a behavior in circumstances that the dog is not ready for, such as in a distracting environment. Regardless, it comes down to the trainer not adequately training and preparing the dog for the circumstances in which he or she didn’t listen.
That’s the end of my list of 10, but I have one more really important one that I couldn’t leave out. My last tip for you is to be kind to yourself. None of us are perfect and all of us make mistakes. When your timing is off and you accidentally marked your dog for jumping on your mom instead of sitting, or clicked the dog dropping the dumbbell instead of clicking the hold, forgive yourself! We all do it – we mark at the wrong time, we put our dogs into situations for which they aren’t ready, we try to lump behaviors together. We aren’t perfect and just like our dogs aren’t expected to be perfect little robots all the time, we can’t expect that of ourselves. If you mess up, go get your own reset treat and hug your dog.