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Setting Your Dog Up For Success

Often you’ll hear a dog trainer throw out the phrase “set your dog up for success,” but what exactly do we mean by that?

For us trainers, usually what that phrase means is setting up realistic expectations and goals for you and your dog. Setting your dog up for success helps in reducing frustration felt by you and your pet. It also helps in building bonds and trust in each other.

Think about it this way, when you start a new job you go through a training phase where they teach you what is expected and how to perform your job correctly. They don’t just throw you out on the floor and say, “I expect you to do everything perfectly”. That would be unfair and I bet you wouldn’t stay at that job. So why should we expect anything differently from our dogs?

Setting up for Success

So how do you set your dog up for success? Well for starters, get to know your dog. What are their motivators? Do they like to play fetch? Tug? Maybe they are really motivated by treats and their kibble, or maybe they really are driven by praise and affection. Figuring out whatever motivates your dog will be the first step to setting them up for success.

To go along with that, learn what they don’t like. Not every dog likes to play with other dogs or greet strangers, and that’s totally ok. Don’t force them into situations that will make them uncomfortable such as bringing them to the dog park when they don’t like dogs, or taking them into crowded areas when they’re nervous around people. That will only set them up for failure.

Next thing to consider is their age. If they are a puppy, then you need to set the expectations lower and expect yourself to help them out a lot more often. Puppies, just like children, need time to learn, grow and mature. See the world from their perspective, this is a huge world and everything is something new to explore.

Even if your dog is older, if you’ve never set an expectation before and start asking something new from them, you still need to teach them what it is you are now expecting of them and take the needed time to train them. Expect them to struggle and fail at first. Expect yourself to have to correct them and show them what is right. Remember to be fair and reward them when they’re doing something right and help when they’re wrong.

Here are some simple ways to help set your dog up for success:

Crate Training: I know, the dreaded crate. But I am a firm believer that crates are a wonderful tool to use when you are setting your puppy up for success! A crate is a great place to learn many behaviors, including learning to occupy themselves during quiet time or alone time. Crate time should be a good space for them to play with their own toys, sleep, or relax without you around. This will help with preventing separation anxiety and other unwanted behaviors in the future. Crates don’t have to be a forever thing, but if you start them as a puppy to learn and feel comfortable in the crate, once they are old enough and well trained, they can start to have access to the rest of the house when you leave your home for the day.

Have a strong default behavior: A default behavior is a position that your dog learns to naturally fall into whenever they are waiting for something from you. This is usually either a sit or laying down position. To train a default position, start out in a quiet and neutral place, such as your house, and train your pet to keep their attention on you. Reward them with a treat when they maintain that position and are focused on you. Start out by setting a very short time, then slowly lengthen when their attention stays on you longer. Once they have this down in your home, start training in other environments to get them used to this, such as moving to your backyard first and then your front yard, slowly building up the distractions. Default behavior is successfully trained when your dog learns to do this when they are waiting on you for something or want your attention, such as at feeding time. This will teach self-control and patience by not engaging in loud or destructive behavior to get your attention, such as barking or jumping. Instead you will be rewarding calm behavior.

Train daily: When training your dog, it is important to maintain consistency, keep up repetition and get your timing right.

The best advice would be to always make sure you set your dog up in a way that they cannot fail. This way they are learning what is expected of them and both you and your dog will grow together. If you are sure that your dog is not going to listen to your request; then don’t ask it. For example, if you don’t have a perfect recall in a quiet environment, such as at home; then it will be unfair to ask them to listen to you in the middle of a field surrounded by other dogs, children or wildlife. This is setting your dog up to fail and is often the reason why many owners become frustrated.

By not understanding the importance of setting up small goals in training there is the real possibility that your dog will never fully understand what you’re asking of them. Something really important to understand and recognize in dogs is that they do not generalize! Even when you have taught your dog to perform a great sit-stay in the middle of your living room, this does not mean he will perform this at a busy park. You need to take the steps to build up to a good sit-stay around distractions. Once you and your dog have mastered it in the house, move to areas that are slightly more distracting (ex. backyard and front of the house), keep a good distance away from distractions and don't move closer until you have a really strong behavior at a distance.

Do not rush! When the level of distractions increases, so does the likelihood of your dog struggling and failing. The next time you find yourself fighting with your dog, step back, take a deep breath and think about what you can change in the environment or in your training plan to set your dog up for success and make training easier. I promise you, you both will be much happier!

So to conclude, when we speak of “setting our dogs up for success” we really just mean setting up realistic goals and understanding that we as the owner/ trainer need to help our dogs out by staying consistent and having fun! Get to know your dog, this isn’t supposed to be a chore, it’s a time for bonding and learning. When fear and frustration start to step in, take a step back, end the training session and go back in later once everyone is happy and focused again.

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