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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Basic Handler Skill Sets:  Improving Your Chops as a Trainer

Part of successful coaching of owners who are training their own dogs is installing a set of basic concepts (mental understanding), and teaching owners to apply the concepts to each situation.  This includes how dogs learn, what reward and punishment systems are most effective and how to deliver them, and how to set criteria for training.  It is during this instruction that the instructor learns about the owner's previous beliefs and biases, and often has to really persuade the owner that just because they saw it on TV or heard it from their dad, it might not actually be a truth.

The second very important issue is to teach physical skills like body awareness, how to use body language to aid in the learning process, timing, and the ability to project a calm and confident attitude to the dog.  During this section, instructors often have to help the owner realize that just because a human would understand certain things, dogs need slightly different body language and attitudes to really understand what the person is trying to communicate.

So, you're a dog owner, and you came here to read about improving your chops.  Let's go through the basic concepts of successful dog training.  Remember, we are going for not only EFFECTIVE (getting the job done), but EFFICIENT (gets it done in the swiftest, easiest way possible).

  1. Always set criteria for your training session.  How many sits, how fast, at what point will I quit?

  2. Quit at a high point.  Resist your human nature to drill the dog doing amazing new things.  He will learn better if you get an amazing success, jackpot him with treats and praise, and stop the session.  He will not get rewarded for the sloppy efforts that happen if you drill him and drill him.  Good trainers recognize when to quit while they are AHEAD.

  3. Dogs have a hard time generalizing things.  This means that each time something is a little different, he may need remedial training.  Do not expect the same duration and quality of stay that you got in your home to transfer to the park.  Reduce your expectations for a few repetitions, reward lavishly, and then build him up to the "home stay" duration.

  4. Generalization is also to be kept in mind while socializing.  Just because he likes YOUR kids, does not mean that he likes ALL kids.  He will see each age group as a different thing.  Toddlers are often unpredictable in their movements and vocalizations.  Five-year-olds are a little more dependable but move and act differently than eight-year-olds.  Pre-teens act differently than 16-year-olds.  Do not think "he's comfortable with kids" until you have shown him lots of kids. 

  5. Good trainers reward their dogs a lot.  Trainers with no experience often reward less than 1/8th of the time, which does not lead to an easy learning process.  The dog might do a correct repetiton 100 times and get a reward response from the handler 30-40 times.  Don't try to "wean him off treats" right away. Reward every success for at least the first two to three weeks, only start randomizing after the dog has a HUGE reward history.

  6. Good trainers do things in short, intense spurts rather than long, protracted sessions.  You want your dog attentive and at his best, and a good time period for a session is about 8-10 minutes.  You can do as many short sessions in a day as you like.

  7. Good trainers repeat things quickly and deliver rewards quickly.  As an experienced person, I can get about 40 rewarded sits in a minute.  A new dog owner in my class will have difficulty getting five sits in a minute.  It is easy to see what quick delivery, several repetitions in a short time in a concentrated short session, is the way to do things for good success.

  8. Timing is crucial when giving any kind of reward.  Good trainers mark the behavior verbally the moment it happens, give the SIT cue for example, say "GOOD BOY" as his butt hits the ground, and the treat comes a fraction of a second later.  Inexperienced trainers say "GOOD BOY" after he's gotten up from sitting, and then take 20 seconds to dig a treat out from their pocket.  By that time the dog has sniffed a rock, scratched his ear, looked at a bird and lain down at your feet.  What is he getting rewarded for?  Dogs best associate rewards with the activity they were doing when the treat is delivered.  How is he supposed to learn that the reward is for sitting, if your timing is terrible?

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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas