Training Sessions Part 1: Always Training, All the Time

Here’s a little secret about dog training – your dog doesn’t know the difference between training and the rest of life.

Okay, he probably understands when you are intentionally training.  You have treats, maybe a clicker, you are directly interacting with him in a certain way, specific to training sessions.

But he doesn’t stop learning when you stop your intentional training session.  Every interaction with your dog teaches him something about the way the world works. 

If he jumps and “just this once” you pet him while he does, he learns from that.
If he barks out of fear and the scary thing goes away, he learns from that.
If he pulls toward something on a walk and succeeds in getting to it, he learns from that.
If he snatches a treat from your hand and gets to inhale it, he learns from that.

So, what can you do about this?  You can be Always Training, All the Time.  Be thoughtful in every interaction with your dog.  Think about what he might learn from each action and result.  Is it something you want him to learn to do?  If not, change the result or prevent the action from happening in the first place.

This is where the management of your dog’s time can really come in handy.  Here are some things you can do to make it easier to be Always Training, All the Time:

Use a crate:

Teach your dog to be happy and comfortable in a crate.  A crate (or x-pen) is an excellent tool for managing your dog.  It allows him to be near you, but prevents him from making mistakes (like getting into the garbage) or from frustrating you when you cannot give him your attention (for example, if you have company over and Fido wants to visit by licking everyone, it can be easy to stray from your usual training techniques).

Note – a crate should never be used for punishment.  It should be a resting place for your dog.  I recommend giving him a special toy or chew when he is in his crate so he can be engaged in something if he wants to.  Also, too much crate time can lead to a restless, hyper puppy!  Use the crate as a tool, but balance it with attention, training time, and exercise.

Get your dog the right amount of exercise:

Speaking of exercise, it is important!  Amount of exercise can contribute to your dog’s behavior just as much as amount of training.  It is important for dogs in the same way it is important for us.  It keeps them healthy, fit, and clear-minded.  For most dogs, a walk or two daily is not enough.  Find a way to let your dog really run whenever possible. Play fetch, go running on trails, let him play with other dogs, go swimming, or get involved in a dog sport like agility.  Every dog is different; figure out what your dog needs and then incorporate it into your daily routine.  Try to find activities that you both enjoy.  For example, I love to go for long walks so I located a park where I can walk while my dogs can run off-leash through the fields, exploring and chasing each other.  Usually I walk about 3 miles and I estimate they run 7 or 8!

Teach your dog to lay on his bed and rest/chew when asked:

When you are watching TV, eating dinner, or doing other quiet family activities ask your dog to lie on a bed or blanket in the same room.  Encourage him to be calm by giving him a toy or bone that involves chewing rather than tug/fetch activities.  This will take a lot of practice, but it pays off in the end!

Dan, chewing his ball on his bed in my office.

Dan, chewing his ball on his bed in my office.

Okay, so now you have some tools for managing your dog when your life is hectic, but how do you incorporate Always Training, All the Time Here are some examples of how we incorporate training into our dog’s daily lives in order to teach them house manners and to strengthen good behaviors:

Use play:

All play at our house involves training.  In fact, the training is the play at our house!  When we are playing tug or fetch with the dogs, we are also asking them to do some of the behaviors they know.  A play session might look like this:

  1. Dog brings toy
  2. We tug, tug, tug, then say “drop it”
  3. Dog drops toy.  “Gooooood dooogggg!” (lots of petting and scratching)
  4. “Dog sit”, dog sits, “goood!!!”, “okay, dog down”, dog downs, “good! Backup!”, dog leaps backward, “what a gooood doggg!!!” (toss toy, dog leaps after it, shakes it around, then eventually comes back)

This teaches your dog several things.  First, that rules are still involved during play.  If I ask for the toy, he needs to give it to me.  If he brings it to me, I need to tug or throw it.  Second, it teaches your dog that training is super fun! Third, it practices impulse control and teaches your dog to have an “on/off switch”.  The play starts and stops all the time but that’s okay, it will start again soon if he is patient!

Create rules based on the room you are in:

Dogs are very dependent on context and will quickly learn whether or not a behavior is acceptable in a certain situation.  At our house, we have general rules based on the environment and our dogs have learned where we play, where we rest, where we cuddle, and where we give a bath (lol!).  Here’s what we do, although you should definitely do what fits for your household:

  1. My Office – No play.  I always give the dogs a treat when they come in and lay on their bed and then they are expected to chill out.  Occasionally they come over for a pet or cuddle but when I say “okay all done” they go back to their bed.
  2. Kitchen – Unfortunately, this is the “play room”.  It can be chaotic.  But what usually happens is one of us is cooking and the other is playing with the dogs while we talk about our day.  It works out well most of the time.
  3. Living room – The dogs are expected to lay down when asked, but we of course play here too sometimes.  I encourage them to play on their own more here, but sometimes we play fetch.  Not much tug, it gets to be too exciting.
  4. Outside – All play goes!  This is the dog’s space to “be a dog”, we discourage barking and digging but otherwise they get to run and play.  (When I say discourage, I mean interrupt the behavior by calling them over to me or bringing them inside – calmly).
  5. Dining Room – When we are eating they are supposed to lay down, but sometimes this isn’t perfect.  Dan loves to herd the cat in this room for some reason.  If they are really good and lay down through a whole meal, they get treats at the end.
  6. Bathroom – This is where we give baths.  The dogs avoid it at all costs, unless no one is home, then Dan helps himself to the garbage!  We usually fix this by simply closing the door.  Easy as pie.

Going on Walks:

Enforce the rules of walking at all times.  This means if the dog pulls, you stop until he focuses on you, then you can continue on your way.  Everyone has different criteria for leash manners.  Decide what yours are and stick to it.  Reward the good all the time and try to prevent rewards for the not-so-good.  Walks should always be happy, fun, upbeat, and focused on the dog.  If you cannot focus on the dog, leave him home and take him for his own walk later.  He will prefer this, I promise.  When a dog is new to walking on a leash, or is learning new rules, your walks may need to be shorter.  Don’t view it as exercise unless your dog is already good at walking on a leash.  Give him another chance to get his exercise in.

These are just examples, some of the most common times that we might not give our dogs the attention they need to learn the right behavior.

Cecil, resting on his blanket in my office

Cecil, resting on his blanket in my office

One more note – these concepts work for all species, not just dogs.  Our cat has learned to sleep in his box on my desk when he is in my office.  And he has learned to cuddle in the living room and meow for food in the kitchen.  He also drives us crazy if he hasn’t had enough attention or activity in a day and loves to do training time, although we don’t do it as often as we should!

Remember, your pet is always learning, and you are always training.  Whether you mean to be or not.

*Stay tuned for the next piece on Training Sessions Part 2 – Types of Training Sessions*