This is the second installment in my blog series on clean training practices (CTPs). Be sure to check out the first post here!
You’ve got your clicker and some treats, your dog is eager, and you have some time to train. Maybe you have a project you’re working on right now, like weave poles, scent articles, or even loose leash walking. So you get to work but you’re not really clear on end-goals for the session or even *what* you’re training today (because maybe you’re working on all three of those things!). Before long, your other duties call and your dog training time is spent up. What did you accomplish? Hopefully you had a good time out there, but if you’re like most of my clients (and myself) you have limited time to dedicate to training and these aimless sessions will add up. You need a plan before you go back out there again, and just knowing what your project is does not qualify, but is a good start.
The Master Task List
Each dog you’re working with should have a Master Task List. Most people have a semblance of this in their heads, but I suggest writing it out, and changing it depending on current goals. For maintenance training divide your work into three categories; foundation, new skills, and problem-solving. For preparation training (getting ready for a big event, getting ready to enter something for the first time, etc.) divide it into three more categories; specific skills, complimentary tasks, and addressing weaknesses.
Here are two examples:
Felix–Maintenance Training, 8 month old puppy
- Toy skills
- New Skills
- Gator trick
- Bear and one paw raises
- Backing up
- Recalls off chickens
- Working around other dogs
Idgie–Preparation Training for NAC and Open-level Obedience
- Specific Skills
- NAC-nothing (Idgie does not need to learn any new skills for this event)
- Open-dumbbell proofing
- Open–returning over the high jump proofing
- Complimentary Tasks
- NAC-weekly workout
- NAC-massage and BoT coat
- Open-focus work in challenging environments
- Addressing Weaknesses
- NAC-soft-side weave entries
- NAC-backside serp bars
- NAC-tunnel dogwalk discriminations
- Open-about turns
- Open-fast pace
The Individual Session
Ok, you’ve got a master task list, the hard part is over! For individual session planning I often just take a look at my master list and make a quick plan in my head. If you’d like to be more organized than that, go ahead and make a bullet list of things you’d like to hit over the next 30 minutes you’ve got to work with your dog. Now it’s time to worry about the details. I find doing these three things (noticing a theme, here?) to work wonders. Decide where the task at hand currently sits, be sure you know what the goal behavior looks like, then decide on what increments you will attempt today. Your planning will look like this:
Felix sit-stay work
- What does the task look like now? (I will test this first thing in the session)
- Felix can hold a sit-stay if I walk around him in a circle with the toy on the ground directly in front of him or sitting at either of his sides. He struggles with toy behind him but has been successful about 60% of the time.
- What does the end product look like?
- Felix will hold a sit-stay with no obvious reinforcer (no toy on the ground) while I throw toys, run in a circle around him, or run past him.
- What increments will I attempt today? (this part may be altered if in my initial assessment what I believed to be true is not)
- Move the toy gradually further behind him
- Increase my pace as I walk around him, but with the toy out front
- Increase my pace as I walk past him, with the toy out front
A System for Progressing
Now you have your master task list and your individual sessions planned out. You still need to know how to progress within each session. Simply hitting your bullet list for the time you have is not a smart way to train. What if, in my initial assessment of behavior, the dog’s skill is not as high as I believed? What if I start to see multiple failed attempts? Very skilled trainers can often do this part without thinking, which is why I believe it is rarely discussed. If you can’t do it on the fly, or if you simply prefer a more organized approach, try to think of a traffic light. Yeah, a traffic light.
Do everything in sets of three. If your dog gets it right three times, that’s a green light, and you need to progress to the next increment. If your dog gets it right two out of three attempts, that’s a yellow light; repeat for the next three. If your dog only gets 1, or zero attempts correct, that’s a red light and you need to back off your difficulty rate and return to a previous increment.
3-Green 2-Yellow 1 or less-Red
For instance, let’s say I am working Idgie’s soft-sided weave pole entries. I am going to send her to each entry three times, and based on her success rate I will either send her for a more difficult entry for my next set of three, repeat that set, or back up and give her an easier entry. This will ensure that I am neither progressing too fast nor remaining stagnant in my training.
For more nerdy CTPs, check out the blog next week!