"I don’t even know where to start. It just seems so huge and daunting. I don’t know how to define a plan, what steps to include, or when to raise criteria. It’s just easier to go out and do something, muddle around. I know that’s not efficient, but at least it’s something."
This was the answer I heard when I asked a training partner why she didn’t have a training plan. Unfortunately, her response is not unique; I talk to a lot of trainers without a concrete training plan.
Training the call to heel behavior chain
I was one of them once. I didn’t need a plan—I knew what I wanted! However, once I started really tracking criteria and success ratios, I saw my training leap forward and gain momentum. Instead of needing weeks or months to train a behavior, I needed days. It was marvelously exhilarating.
Now, I nearly always have a training plan when I begin a formal session with a dog. Sometimes it’s written, sometimes it’s not—but it’s always there in my mind. If the behavior is complex or critical, I do keep written records of criteria and success. I want to identify any trouble spots easily and fix them instantly instead of fumbling with a bothersome behavior for a long time. Two minutes of training with a solid plan is equivalent to at least twenty minutes without, in my judgment.
But how do you approach designing a training plan? This can be a daunting task for beginners.
Set a goal
The first step is to determine what it is you really want to train. This may sound foolish, but it’s actually neglected by many! "I want to teach my dog to heel," someone might say. But, does he really want formal heeling, or merely loose-leash walking? If it is formal heeling, at what criteria—is the dog looking ahead or up at the handler? Glued to the left leg as in competitive obedience, or slightly behind as in some field work? Duration for the few minutes of an AKC routine, or the 40 minutes required for an upper-level Mondioring trial?
While preparing for the BH (Begleithund Test, an entry-level test in the sport of Schutzhund), I calculated that on my club field I would need approximately 600 steps of heeling. Therefore, I knew that duration would be a big part of my criteria, as much as precision. I had to approach that trial differently than I’d approached our AKC Novice routine (patterns of approximately 40 steps).
Define the behavior
This may feel similar to goal-setting, but it’s an important intermediate step. Describe the behavior in detail, being as specific as possible. Especially if you are new to training plans, try actually writing this down—the process may surprise you! Pretend you are giving a very technical report to someone who has never even heard of this behavior.
Here are some examples, using my own definitions of common behaviors. (Some of these may differ from your concept of a perfect performance—that’s okay!)
"The dog tucks his hips forward and beneath his body, folding his rear legs so that he rests squarely upon each hock. Rocking backward is incorrect. This behavior begins within a half-second of hearing the cue and is completed within one second." (Sit)
Laev guarding the helper
after releasing him on cue.
"The dog is at the handler’s left side, aligned parallel to the handler’s direction of travel, with his withers at the handler’s pants seam. The dog is looking upward attentively at the handler. The dog’s default position is sitting; if the handler moves forward or backward, the dog moves with the handler’s left leg, maintaining his position and attention upon the handler and returning to the sit when the handler ceases movement." (Heel)
"The dog will rest in a comfortable manner, in a sphinx-like or a relaxed down, between pantry and island, with nose at least 18" from the dishwasher door while the door is fully open." (Staying out of the way during dishes)
"The dog is in a sphinx-like or relaxed down position with both elbows fully upon the mat’s surface; other body parts may overhang the edge of the mat." (Settling on a mat)
Could an artist draw an accurate picture from your description? Can you add more details to complete the image?
Too often I hear, "Is this good enough? Should I click this?" Of course, by the time anyone could answer that question, the clickable moment has passed. The behavior needs to be defined well in advance so that the trainer can capture that instant of success promptly and accurately.
Break it down
Next, you need to identify stepping stones toward the finished behavior. This is where many trainers find training plans tedious and intimidating. But if you have defined your behavior, breaking it down is much simpler!
Look at the details of the behavior. For settling on a mat, for example, I will need a down with two elbows on the mat. It’s simple to say that an intermediate step is one elbow on the mat, just as it’s easy to see that I can start with a down without either elbow fully on the mat, if necessary.
This is where, as an instructor, I enjoy tormenting my clients (playfully).
"What is the first part of lying on the mat?""Standing on the mat," someone might suggest.
"What is the first part of standing on the mat?""Well, getting to the mat."
"What is the first part of getting to the mat?""Taking a step toward it."
"What is the first part of walking toward the mat?""Looking at it."
"What is the first part of looking at the mat?"
But sometimes you can get stumped trying to break down behaviors. This is one of the very few places in clicker training where working in negatives can be helpful. I might ask, "Can the dog look at the mat if he is watching the handler?"
"What then, does he need to do in order to look at the mat?"
"Look away from the handler."
From this series of Socratic queries, a very basic series of steps toward a finished settle onto a mat has been defined:
- look away from the handler
- look at the mat
- step toward the mat
- step onto the mat
- lie on the mat
- lie on the mat with at least one elbow wholly on the mat
- lie on the mat with both/two elbows wholly on the mat
Preliminary plans usually aren’t complete, but they are an excellent starting point. Looking at the list above, I see a large gap between "stepping on the mat" and "lying on the mat." I would guess that most dogs won’t make that leap automatically, and I’d want to add more steps there. What is the first part of lying down? Either sitting or lowering the head, depending on the dog’s preferred technique. (This is why observation of your animal is important.)
Laev preventing the attempted
escape of the "bad guy."
Call to heel—an example
A sample training plan illustrates breaking down the goal behavior, working incrementally, and recovering from errors.
The call to heel is a relatively simple behavior chain, but is difficult in this context—verbally pulling a highly aroused dog away from a decoy in a Schutzhund protection routine. Traditionally, this is trained using strong aversives, as it is very difficult for the dog to leave the highly-desired helper! For style, I wanted my dog to back directly into heel position without taking her eyes from the decoy. Here is my training plan and its amendments.
GOAL: On the cue, the dog will back away from the helper, even during a full hold and bark, and move directly into heel position, with the handler approximately five paces behind the barking dog. The dog will sit at heel and remain there, attentive to both helper and handler.
- In my kitchen, shape backing into heel.
- Use the counter and island to make straight backing easy.
- Ease away from walls to get backing without props for straightness.
- Add cue.
- Add distance to reach eight paces of straight backing into sit-at-heel.
- Practice to fluency in other locations.
- Add excitement! Nothing gets Laev wired like a helper, but food is still a pretty high level of arousal.
- Have husband hold dinner dish and speak to her while handler stands behind her, call to heel. Click, send forward for food.
- Have husband move food dish, speak excitedly. Call to heel.
- Have husband tease openly and wildly with food. Call to heel.
- Add a real, live decoy.
- Walk dog to sit in front of still decoy, away from blind. No stimulation. (Ignore dog’s quivering and barking.) Move back, call to heel. Click and send for bite.
- Start a few feet back from helper, send for hold and bark. Call to heel.
- Oops! Too much arousal; failure. Start directly in front of helper, cue for hold and bark without dog’s forward movement. Handler backs up, call to heel.
- Back up to five feet from helper, send for hold and bark, call to heel.
- Start at increasing distances from helper, send for hold and bark, handler walks up to proper distance behind dog, call to heel.
- Add a stimulating decoy.
- Hold dog as helper challenges dog. Send frenzied dog a short distance to hold and bark. Move back, call to heel. Click and bite.
- Increase distance.
- Move helper to the blind.
- The blind is very, very emotionally loaded! Start directly in front of helper again, rebuild to distance.
- Incorporate call to heel in known blind search routine.
- Plan for how to recover from errors!
- Oops! Hyper-stimulated dog on a new helper failed to come to heel when called.
- Take dog from helper (negative punishment). Away from blind, place dog in sit, move backward, call to heel. Reinforce by cueing dog to search blind, to restart attempt.
- Blend finished behavior into final competition behavior chain.
It’s a process—and there’s always more work to do!
What happens if you forget a step? No worries—this is clicker training! When I realize that I’m not making the progress I predicted, I simply look at my plan and adjust it as necessary. Remember, good training isn’t about a fixed formula to get a behavior; it’s about using the animal’s own skills and natural behaviors. If I find I need an extra step, I simply adjust as needed.
With these instructions and steps, you can create a basic training plan and start working with your selected behavior. Next month I’ll have suggestions for developing that behavior, keeping track of progress, and recovering from mistakes.