Don’t Phone It In – Make Class Count

In the previous post in my series on being a dog training school student, I covered everything I do leading up to actually attending class.  So now this post will cover how I make the most out of an hour long dog training class.

The biggest change and improvement in how I train has to do with how I view the structure of a class.

An hour long class = Thirty 1-minute training sessions with thirty 1-minute breaks

An hour long class is a VERY long time – not only for the dog, but for the handler as well.  It’s impossible for both you and your dog to maintain maximum focus and intensity for 60 minutes non-stop.  If you try, your dog will slow down, and you’ll slow down – you’ll get winded, your mind will wander, you’ll get sloppy with your criteria and mechanical skills, and your dog will get frustrated and confused.  As your dog gets confused, he’ll start checking out and you’ll lose his focus.

A dog training class is very much like a workout routine.  Some of you might know that I am a huge fan of interval training and also a huge Jillian Michaels fan.  Her 20 minute workouts are intense, well structured, and never let you zone out.  You do a set of cardio moves, then a set of strength moves, then core, then repeat, until after 20 minutes you are done.  Each set is only 1-2 minutes in duration so that during each set you maintain focus, intensity, and good form.



While it’s possible for you to do 7 minutes of skip rope, 7 minutes of weights, then 7 minutes of crunches, your skipping would end up being sloppy, you’d end up with poor form on the w?eights, ?and you would probably start trying to get away with sloppy crunches.  Short duration bursts allow you to perform with intensity and also recover for another set.  One of my favorite quotes from her 30 Day Shred DVD is:

“If you want results from a 20 minute workout, you can’t rest.  This will save you hours of phoning it in at the gym.”

So that’s what a 30 Day Shred workout looks like.  Here’s what the equivalent can look like in dog training.



Your Dog’s Station – Off Duty and On Break

As soon as you arrive in class, prior to actually beginning work, put your dog at their station.  This can be their crate, or their mat (hence the need for a fluent Go to Mat behavior with a stay).  When the dog is stationed, this is when you can think, plan, refill on treats, take notes, or listen to or talk to the instructor.  You can borrow a mat from the school, or bring your own (this is best, since it’ll be a constant no matter what training environment you go to).  Reinforce your dog randomly for holding a down-stay at their station.

Ready to Train?  Wait Just a Minute!

Before you release your dog… make sure you can answer these questions:

  1. What is the behavior I am training?
  2. What is the criteria for which the dog will earn a click/treat?
  3. What is the shaping plan? (What are the additional steps of criteria beyond the first level of criteria?)
  4. Where will I keep the reinforcers (treats, toys, etc.)?
  5. Where will I place the reinforcement?
  6. What could do wrong?
  7. What will I do if everything goes horribly wrong?
  8. What will I do if the dog advances their behavior to higher levels of criteria quickly?
  9. What will I do if I forget what I am doing?

There are a lot of different answers to all these questions (and there are probably more questions!).  The point of this exercise is to at least have a training plan ready in your head, even if the whole exercise goes horribly wrong (#6).  The possible answers to #7 and #9 are a) Keep working anyways or b) Send the dog back to their station.

Hit It!

Pre-count the # of treats you will use in a session so that you don’t run the risk of training for too long.  In general, I try to make each session last about one minute in length.  This is because a training session should be short enough that the handler can remember the entire training session.

Three more, two more, last one… When you’re down to your last treat, send the dog back to their station.  You can use the last treat as a reinforcer for going to station.

Dog at Station – Time to Think and Plan

Now that your dog is back at station, you can take a moment to review the training session you just completed.  What went well?  Was the rate of reinforcement high enough?  Is it time to increase criteria for the next training session? Or, if it went poorly, what went wrong, and how can you lower criteria to increase the rate of reinforcement?

This is a great time to take notes, record data in a notebook, get more treats ready, and reset the training environment if required (obstacles, props, etc.)

Some Other Notes:

  • Putting the dog at a station builds anticipation, which can increase the motivation and enthusiasm of the dog once they are released. This can build some speed in your behaviors.
  • Staying at station is training in itself.  If the dog breaks station, send them back and make them hold it until released.  This is a stay exercise and letting the dog break station and then proceeding to train them will cause your stay behavior to deteriorate.
  • If the instructor comes to talk to you and you are in the middle of a training session, send the dog to their station before engaging with them.  It’s OK to be rude to the instructor and ignore them for a few seconds while you wrap up.
  • If the instructor starts lecturing, also send the dog to their station so you can give your undivided attention to the instructor while giving your dog a break.
  • You can also station your dog while waiting for class to begin – if you’re early for class, put down your mat and have them stay on it while waiting for class to begin.

Hope you enjoyed the post!  On a side note, making this video was helpful for me as well.  I spotted a bunch of sloppy training errors I made and I’ve broken them down and will be working on improving my own training skills as a result.  If you watch my video and can see errors I’ve made, comment below!

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