Making a Training Plan

When you decide to train a behavior, how much thought do you put into the process before starting? Do you just jump in with both feet, ready to experiment? Do you break the behavior down and figure out how you're going to get the initial behavior?

Most people spend relatively little time planning their training. As a result, steps are frequently overlooked, not added until problems develop and reveal the holes in the training. Or, the trainer simply reaches a point where he isn't sure what to do next.

The most efficient way to train is to start with a training plan. A training plan gives you a roadmap from where you are to where you want to be.

The first step is to define the behavior in detail.

  • What will the finished behavior look like?

    You must be able to picture the behavior in perfect, precise detail. Don't just focus on the obvious Think about each part of the dog's body -- what must it be doing during each part of the behavior? Want a dog to win the heart of the judge? Include a wagging tail and pricked ears as requirements of the behavior. In clicker training, it's all possible! By the way, don't forget the dog's mouth. So often people ask me how to stop a dog from whining or barking during the behavior. If silence is part of the behavior, plan it, and train it from the start!

  • How will this behavior be cued?

    Verbally? Physically? Environmentally? A combination? Remember that part of teaching a cue is making sure that only the cues you want become lasting cues -- and that dogs are master discriminators. Include plenty of time for generalizing the behavior.

  • What kind of latency is required?

    Latency is speed of response -- the time that elapses between the cue and the behavior. Zero latency is an immediate response. Fast latency is habitual, meaning if you train it for some behaviors, the dog will likely adopt it for all behaviors.

  • Does this behavior have duration? Distance?

    How long should the behavior last? If there's a specific time requirement, plan to train fifty percent beyond that. For example, if you need a two minute sit-stay for competition obedience, plan to train at least a three minute sit-stay.

    Distance should be trained similarly. Distance includes behaviors where the dog is sent to work at a distance, behaviors where the dog must respond to a cue when he is at a distance from the owner, and behaviors where the dog must maintain a behavior even when the owner moves away from him. Distance is challenging because the further the handler is from the dog, the stronger environmental stimuli become.

  • Does your dog have to be in a particular place relative to you to perform this behavior?

    Should the dog always be in front of you or perhaps always within a certain radius of you? If not -- and especially if you specifically don't want the dog to restrict his position relative to you -- you should plan on spending time generalizing this element.

  • Are you always going to be sitting, standing, or lying down when you give the cue?

    Again, this is a generalization issue. Your body position can easily become a secondary cue for the behavior. This may work for you in competition heeling, but it can sabotage you for a household sit.

  • In what locations will the behavior be cued?

    Steve White trains every behavior in twenty different locations to ensure that his police dogs truly generalize their behaviors. You may not need quite that much generalization. For some behaviors, you don't need any! My dogs, for example, aren't allowed in the kitchen of our house. They don't need to generalize to other rooms or other houses.

  • What distractions might the dog face in those locations when performing the behavior?

    List them, rank them, train them.

  • How reliable does this behavior have to be?

    Reliability is a number. You may need only 9 out of 10, or you may need 99 out 100 -- or 999 out of 1000.

The definition of the behavior is a detailed description of where you want to go. The second step is to evaluate where you currently are. If this is a brand new behavior, that’s easy! You’re starting from scratch. If this is an in-progress behavior, evaluate the behavior for all of the above criteria. Keep records and let the data tell you exactly what your dog is capable of doing reliably.

The final step is to make a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be. Start with the behavior. Break it into responses, and shape it to perfection. When it’s exactly right, add the cue. Then one by one add elements like duration, distance, and distractions.

As you train, keep your training plans firmly in mind. Track your progress. Periodically review your training plan, and revise the definition of the final behavior, if necessary. Don’t stop working on the behavior until the behavior your dog performs is a reliable mirror image of the behavior you described.

List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @