Translating Dog Training to Daily Life
Jackie Maffucci, PhD, CPDT-KSA

One of the biggest challenges any owner has when working on training their dogs is wanting to ask for too much, too fast. We all want a "perfect" dog; one that gives us the behaviors we want when we want them. That requires patience. If you're looking for a dog that will walk nicely next to you through your neighborhood even when there are dogs out, kids playing, bikers biking and all kinds of other distractions, it's generally not going to happen overnight, but with persistence and lots of repetition, it will happen.

In our training classes, the rule of thumb is always set your dog up for success. You want to be able to reinforce your dog for desired behaviors, so you need to make sure you're creating situations where they will offer those behaviors. This means setting a realistic criterion. For example, I'm not going to move from recalling my dog on leash from three feet away indoors to recalling outside, off-leash from ten feet away. That's setting my dog up for failure. A more effective strategy is to move from repeated three foot recalls indoors to four foot recalls indoors. From there, you can increase distance even further. And then as your dog gets reliable inside from a distance, you can move outside but in a less distracting setting, and start recalls on leash from a close distance, like three feet away.

Criterion setting is very important and very difficult; it's very easy to go too far, too fast. In dog training we often talk about the three D's: Distance, Distraction and Duration. The rule of thumb is you only make one of these harder at a time, while keeping the other two variables easy. So if you're working at adding distance, then keep the duration short and the distractions low. If you're adding distractions, integrate a short duration and close distance. If you're working on duration, then keep the distractions low and the distance close.

As a behavior is repeatedly cued and reinforced, the response to the cue becomes stronger and more reliable. As the response becomes more reliable, you can make the criteria harder by changing one of the three D's. Over time, you can grow your dog's skill set and eventually you'll have that dog who can walk in the neighborhood regardless of the distractions and be focused on only you.

At Fur-Get Me Not, our Levels program is set up to gradually increase criteria by increasing distractions as you advance through the levels. For those students who move through levels three and four and are looking for even more challenge, we offer a City Walks class. This class takes place outside at the Villages of Shirlington, and is the ultimate opportunity for students to apply the skills they've learned at our training school (indoors) in a real life setting.

When you're outside, anything can happen. In City Walks classes, we use this to your advantage. Our trainers are there to help you navigate what can be the uncontrolled chaos of the great outdoors. We coach you to apply your skill set to help add control. As you and your dog work together in this more distracting environment, you will practice applying your training tools in a more distracting environment and as your dog is reinforced for  responding to these cues by offering desired behaviors, you will be well on your way to not the perfect dog, but the perfect dog-handler team. 

The next City Walks classes begin Saturday, March 28 and Saturday, April 11.

Register online here