Act on your positive decision
If you have welcomed a new dog into your home, or realized that an existing canine family member could use some behavior polish, deciding to work with a professional dog trainer may be one of this year's resolutions. Selecting someone to work with you and your beloved pet is a serious process, requiring research, testimonials and recommendations, and perhaps some observation of the leading candidates. Even when you have chosen the positive trainer that best fits your needs, outlook, and schedule, there is still work to be done. A little advance preparation will go a long way toward creating the smooth and easy partnership you are looking to form with your dog trainer.
Gather and provide details
When you contact a trainer, be as detailed as you can during the first few e-mails or phone conversations. Remember that this person does not know what your situation actually looks like. Be as vivid as possible in your description of your animal(s) and the set-up of your house and backyard. Many trainers ask owners to fill out a pre-screening form that asks for information such as age, breed, past training, animals and humans in the home, etc. If a trainer does not ask, make sure these topics are covered early on, before a training plan is made. These preparatory efforts make it easier for a trainer to visualize the variables of why a certain "unwanted" behavior is happening. It is also helpful to gather recent veterinary records, since some behavior issues are related to underlying medical issues. Examples of medical information to prepare could include:
- Recent medications
- Blood-work results
- Known allergies
- Any recent change of diet
Before the trainer arrives, write down a list of everything that motivates your animal. This list can include food, treats, toys, special items, etc. Since the list is something your trainer would probably ask you to compile in the first training session, you can be one step ahead and have it already prepared! It is also helpful to find a space in your home that you will use for training. This should be the area with the fewest distractions. You'll want to find a place where other animals won't have access and where noises will be at a minimum.
One of the keys to training is setting up your animal for success. If you think about this concept in terms of your new trainer, it makes sense to do as much advance work as possible to set up the trainer, as well as you and your dog, for success beginning at the very first visit.
Do your homework
When a training plan has been initiated, be sure to do your homework. If you have taken the time to ask for help from a professional trainer, taking the time to do your homework is just as important. Time is precious for everyone, but even one- or two-minute training sessions can be helpful. Try training while you are cooking, watching TV, or doing other everyday activities.
Don't try to limit your training to your house; be sure to think outside of the box. Always have treats with you when you are out in public so that you can reinforce behaviors that you have practiced at home. Going to the vet and the groomer are necessary tasks, so why not make the situation as fun and rewarding as possible? Laura Monaco Torelli's article Ready…Set…for Groomer and Vet! offers examples of how to make a vet visit a learning experience.
As you train in different environments, try not to push your animal too far over comfort level, though. Be aware of body language and stress level when you are working on training exercises in public.
It is helpful to keep a training journal where you document training sessions. For each practice session, write down the length of time, where the session took place, what reinforcer was used, and what behavior was worked on.
Stay in the present
When you are experiencing a behavior issue with your animal, it can be very frustrating. It's easy to think back to when you weren't having this issue. You might also find yourself thinking about how long it will take to work on a particular behavior.
However, the best thing to do while working with a trainer is to stay in the present. You can't fix the past and it may be difficult to predict the future, but focusing on the present can help you see everyday successes. Celebrate those achievements! Have you ever learned a new language or sport? You didn't speak fluently or make 3-pointers the first day. These accomplishments require lots of time and practice. It's is the same with dog training. Keep the final goal in sight, but remain excited about the small things you accomplish. At the end of every week, try to write down five positive things you and your pet accomplished while training; reference the list and encourage yourself as you progress.
Pull out your phone or camera
I've heard many owners say, "But he did it yesterday!" Documenting a behavior problem or training obstacle, or even progress, via video can be very helpful for both the owner and trainer. A video provides the trainer a visual with which s/he can understand a situation better.
Capturing training on film also allows owners to see progress in their training plans. Many professional trainers video their training sessions because there is no way to see everything that is happening in a moment. If you are not getting a behavior and you think you should, video the session and watch it later. Observing my own sessions when I am facing this same dilemma, I find that I am not doing something correctly most of the time. A visual history of the training journey can also be enjoyable to have when goals have been accomplished!
If clicker training works for you and your dog, reinforce your trainer, too. Many trainers love positive reinforcement because it works for different species, including humans. A kind e-mail can mean so much and takes just a second to send. If you like something that any professional does, be sure to let him or her know! Finally, remember to give yourself credit and praise as well. Deciding to work with a trainer, selecting just the right professional, completing advance preparation steps as well as homework assignments, and focusing on the end goal are all things that you did to lead your animal to behavior success. Bravo!