Imagine this. You are talking on the phone to your friend and telling her a story that’s really important to you. She seems really interested in the story and is giving you great feedback when suddenly she isn’t listening anymore and she starts talking to someone else. You wait patiently for a few seconds for her to return but those seconds go on and on and soon feel like forever. You say something into the phone and get no reply and then the line goes dead. How do you feel? You might feel sad, disappointed, or not valued as a friend. If it happens once you might be able to overlook it, but how would you feel if this happens repeatedly? Would your enthusiasm for sharing things with this friend be dampened? Would you worry that you were doing something wrong?
Now, consider for a moment if you have ever done this to your dog. We are training with our dogs one moment and rewarding the dog for paying attention and doing cues and the next moment the instructor distracted you and you are ignoring your dog. Or the phone rang or the pot of water boiled over. The list of possible human distractions goes on and on. We have all done this. It happens. In order for our dogs to learn to have excellent focus, we need a clear way to tell our dogs that training has paused or ended.
When we tell our dogs that training has paused, then the dog knows when it is important to focus and engage with us and when it isn’t important. Without this communication, our dogs who tend to worry, worry more and our dogs who need more enthusiasm lose enthusiasm and our dogs who tend to get over-excited for the rewards, get frustrated and lose control of themselves. Having a few options for how to tell your dog that the training session has paused will prevent your dog from the frustration and devastating disappointment that comes with being ignored during what the dog believes is still be an opportunity to earn rewards.
Here are some options for how to tell your dog that the training session has paused:
- Cue the dog to go to a particular location and stay there until cued to resume training. Reward the dog once the dog arrives at the mat, bed or chair.
- Cue the dog to go to their crate. Reward the dog once the dog is in the crate.
- Have the dog lie down and step on the leash and periodically reward the dog for remaining in the down or for relaxing.
- Cue the dog to put their paws on your leg and pet the dog.
- Kneel down and pet the dog while you are talking to the instructor between your training repetitions.
- Give a verbal cue that training has ended. This can be done either in combination with an environmental cue such as one of the options above or without. I prefer to give an environmental cue in addition to the verbal cue as often as possible.
Here are some options for how to tell your dog that the training session is finished:
- Cue the dog to go to a mat, bed or chair and stay there. After the final repetition, send the dog to the location, reward the dog and then release the dog from the location.
- Cue the dog to go to their crate, reward the dog, then release the dog from the crate.
- Have the dog lie down, then cue the dog with “all done” or a similar cue after the last repetition.
- Put a leash on the dog and exit the training space, then cue the dog that training has ended.
- Give a verbal cue that training has ended. This can be done either in combination with an environmental cue such as one of the options above or without.
It’s ideal to think of what can be used at a trial for your particular sport as well. For obedience, the last thing before leaving the ring is putting the leash back on and that is followed by going to our ringside chair and crate where the dog receives their treats. In agility, the dog can leap into your arms or the dog can retrieve their own leash just prior to leaving the ring where the dog can receive additional rewards. It’s important to incorporate these sequences into the end of training at home and in your familiar training spaces as well. The more often we incorporate these cues into the reward process, the clearer it is for the dog. They learn when the opportunity to earn rewards is open and when the opportunity has ended. The dog learns when to focus on the handler and when to relax. It’s important that the dog understands when the opportunity to be heard and to earn rewards has ended. We would extend the same courtesy to a friend. Extend this courtesy to your dog.
By the way, my new class “Fabulous Focus” will begin here in Rock Hill, SC on August 2nd. We will go over start training cues and end training cues and building fabulous focus with our dogs in between! We will be systematically adding distractions to our dog’s focus and will slowly build the dog’s abilities to be off-leash and remain focused on their owners regardless of the distractions around the dogs. Check it out here!
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