Having a plan can help training sessions to go smoothly. Here’s what to consider to ensure you cover everything you want while allowing space for changes.
Years ago, when I taught high school English in Brooklyn, New York, all the teachers had to submit weekly lesson plans explaining what we were going to teach each class each day. It was a huge amount of work and every one of us hated doing them.
Then I became a dog trainer and the lesson plan became my friend. I used three-by-five cards, easy to take with me, that had all the info I needed, plus notes of what I planned to do at each lesson to get the dog trained to the level I had promised. Of course, as with teaching humans, unexpected things come up and a good teacher is always ready to deviate from the plan and take advantage of or deal with what’s happening at the moment. After the lesson I would check off what we actually did, adding things we did that weren’t in my notes.
Sometimes, with humans and with dogs, what emerges is an incredible lesson that was never imagined. With dogs, sometimes you will see that your student understands far more than you thought, and that can alter the way you train and what you plan to teach. I have had several dogs who early on understood a personal reward — the pleasure we each felt when the dog “got it” — so well that it bumped the work up to a new level. Great communication and great fun for human and dog.
Having a plan in mind means you will teach something new, polish something you began, or tweak everything your dog knows and then do your sightseeing, play a game or two, perhaps get a chore done on your way home. For me, planning means I won’t forget. Planning means I am moving my pup forward, perhaps tightening up the basics so I can teach a fun trick or begin a new game.
Yesterday, I planned to work on some off-leash heeling. But first, I wanted my pup, Ziggy, to be able to relieve himself and get the chance to do some more active exercise. Even in a big city, there are spaces where we can have room to work and be relatively alone. That means we can concentrate on each other without too many distractions.
Even playing a game, there’s always a trick or two up my sleeve. This is not only because it’s fun for Ziggy to do more complicated games, but because I have found that the more you address a dog’s mind, the more he uses it and the more interesting he becomes. Using a long line for short retrieves, after a few throws, I ask Ziggy to lie down and wait and I toss his toy. Then I send him to find it. Sometimes I ask him to lie down on his way back to me.
Next I walk him along and drop his toy duck behind my back. Then I send him back, saying “Find it,” thus preparing him for a much tougher “Seek Back” in the future. The Seek Back asks a dog to find something that is out of place in that environment. It’s a great and fascinating exercise, used by police investigators sometimes to comb a crime scene. Having written mysteries, this one appeals to me! Because it relies heavily on scent, dogs love it, too.
Next, the lesson plan calls for off-leash heeling, so we need to work in a safe space. My building has a private park in back which is completely enclosed and safe, but clever trainers also find spaces in parking lots, fenced yards, and empty schoolyards. Once I am sure Ziggy is safe off leash, I do some longer throws so he really gets to run and then we try some off-leash heeling. Because Ziggy has had the chance to run, to crack a few jokes, to practice something new, and to get tons of praise — thumbs up and clapping are our favorites — he is mellow enough to heel, even though he’d rather run. I never do this for very long. I just want to be sure he can concentrate enough to work off leash because even if you never intend to do that, leashes sometimes drop and it’s good to know your dog will listen—and be safe—no matter what.
The lesson plan has kept me on target but left enough room for me to respond to any interesting reaction on Ziggy’s part. After a very short, intense amount of off-leash heeling, Ziggy gets to finish his walk the way it began, with all the sniffing and marking his heart requires. That’s his lesson plan and it doesn’t deviate much from day to day.
Using a plan will help you raise and train a confident dog, one with good manners but also a sense of play and a sense of spontaneity. For me, it’s definitely the way to train. I hope it inspires you as well.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.