If You Fail to Plan….

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Dog training is perhaps a very unusual exception.

Dogs are so amazingly adaptive, forgiving of the mistakes we make.  Dogs learn despite our errors.  Present them with the most convoluted, confusing training system and somehow they get it.  Had Ben Franklin observed dog training, he may have said, “If you fail to plan, plan to struggle.”

Planning is an essential skill.  I have as part of my Awesome Dogs C.O.R.E. skills. C.O.R.E. is not a protocol – it just stands for “Components Of Reliable Execution.”  It is a reminder that there are certain basic things that are the bedrock of effective, efficient training. Good trainers do these things.  Pet owners need to know their value so they can hire professionals that do them well.

Each time someone faces problem behaviours, they want a solution.  Exercises should address the problem by providing a path to a clear end goal.  A plan is not a soundbite, a suggestion or flippant piece of advice.  Protocols are not plans.  Cycling through ideas is not a plan.

People all over the world offer suggestions.   They range from someone saying they read an article on the “Top Ten Amazing Ways To Get Your Dog To STOP JUMPING!!!!”  It’s the person who stops you and says, “You know what you ought to do with your dog?”  It’s the person who watched that television show and feels compelled to share the latest miracle solution.  It’s also the person who reads a lot of books and jumps from one new thing to another, never stopped to fully assess if any have merit or risks.  Throwing stuff out there as a suggestion is not the sign of a plan.  It’s simply regurgitating information which may or may not be appropriate – even if it may come from a place of good intentions.

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A plan is goal, expressed in a series of steps that suits a specific dog and their family. A plan is the roadmap.  It shows the route and plots the steps to be taken to reach a specific destination.  It’s the pencil and the piece of paper, working out the BEST way to get there while avoiding detours and determining the best means of transportation.  Planning a trip to Toronto should be more detailed than saying, “Go east.”  You could fly, drive or take the train.  Or if you happen to be starting in Montreal, you might actually have to “Go west.”

Similarly, plans allow us to work through the dog’s training journey.  All dogs learn in the same manner.  It is a myth that different dogs learn differently. Not all dogs need to learn the same thing and not all families want the same thing.  A plan allows for preferences such as these.

Planning is in my opinion an ethical responsibility.  It indicates that we care to hear what a family wants to achieve.  It considers whether training suggestions might flare up other existing problems.  It values a client’s time and money.  We expect families to do right by their dog.  So we must do right by the families.

What are the attributes of a good plan?   First, they address the problem.  A roadmap to New York does little good if you want to go to Toronto.  Similarly, a solid plan for a leash reactive dog isn’t the best route for an anxious one.

Good training plans for success by setting a clear achievable goal or destination.  That goal is then broken down into steps – or criteria.  Criteria are the levels or steps throughout the training plan.  Good training splits these steps into tiny splinters of progression.  Each step needs to be clear and measured.  A trainer who says, “Reward the dog for being close,” has not created clear criteria.  It would be like saying, “Turn somewhere ahead.” Saying, “Reinforce the dog when it is within 30 cm of your legs,” is concrete.  How big is 30 cm?  Look at a ruler and you’ll know exactly.

Good planning addresses details.  Types of reinforcers are chosen with care.  For example, a toy might be ideal for teaching a dog to go over a jump.  You can toss it into the distance, into the grass, and not have the headache of waiting while the dog searches out crumbs of food.  Food is excellent for reinforcing a dog for walking in heel.  It allows for high rate of reinforcement drills, feeding the dog by your leg.  Plans also consider where the reinforcement ought to be given.  It can support and enhance the process.  Done poorly, it can slow you down.

Plans create the basis for clear instruction and reduce chaos.  Eyeballing and emotionally charged reactions are reduced.  We really cannot complain that clients do not follow instructions when the plan is sloppy.  No one can follow poor, arbitrary, loose instructions – not the dog and not the person either.

Let’s look at the usual suggestion given to families with dogs that jump up on people.  A common suggestion is this:



“Teach the dog an incompatible behaviour. If he learns to sit, then he cannot be jumping when he is sitting.”

While that seems very sound, it isn’t a plan.  It’s a wish, and not a very thoughtful one at that.  Different families will interpret and execute these instructions in different ways.

One family will tell the dog to sit each time it jumps. The end result will be a dog that jumps – a lot – because each time they jump the person tells them to sit and then hands out a cookie.  Others will ask for the sit when the dog is out of control. They will wind up sit nagging.

Another family might hunker down and get to work.  Diligently they will dispense cookies to all friends and family.  People will be instructed to, “Give the dog a cookie each time he sits.”  The dog will wind up charging every person it sees.  To sit for strangers, you have to get to strangers.  Perhaps that deals with the jumping, but it also leads to a lot of lunging, darting and pulling on lead.

Finally, some might successfully teach the dog to sit for every stranger. They will be happy until the dog keeps sitting for the veterinarian trying to get a rectal temperature. Hopefully that client has a good sense of humour.

All of these are plausible interpretations of “teach a dog to sit instead of jumping.”  The problems are ensue are avoidable had there been a plan.

Discuss with the family what they actually want.  Many people do not want the dog at the door when guests arrive.  Teaching the dog to go to a mat, when cued by the presence of someone at the door, and to stay on that mat until released  That goal might have been more appropriate.

On the street, most families want their dog to ignore strangers and keep walking, politely, on leash.  The goal may be, “When cued by the sight of a person, move to within 20 cm of the owner’s leg.  Continue to stay in that location until released.”

During free time when the dog can socialize, few families want a sit.  What they want is the absence of jumping.  Standing, sitting and lying down are all appropriate.  A training plan can work that into the mix.  It will involve working through time based criteria, building duration.

Once the destination is set, the work of breaking down the steps begins.  Decide on which cues will be used.  Think through type and position of reinforcement.  Plan how to proof skills, adding in layers of distractions.  A good plan will keep in mind that every training sequence will also create various associations.  Pavlov is a monkey on your back. He can mess with the best laid out plan.  You can also nudge him so that the associations created are the ones you want.

That’s a lot of planning.  It does not even begin to touch additional skills such as chaining or sequencing behaviours.  Teaching takes skill.  I’m not sure when we started thinking that throwing a pile of suggestions at someone was good teaching.  Amassing a pile of strategies and cycling through them shows very little skill.  Good trainers have method to their madness – a plan.

The beauty of a plan is that it addresses the individual needs of the family.  Roadmaps are created. Do clients need to know how to write a training plan?  Of course not.  But they do need to know that one is important.  They should be free to ask for an overview at any time.  The steps need to be expressed in such a way that they can easily understand what to do.