Originally published on ArlNow.com

Do you “practice at your performance?”

I’ve been talking to a lot of clients about practice lately. People hate practice. Do you remember being forced to practice the piano? What about sports drills? It seems to be in our nature to want to get better at something but to hate the process required to get there. Dog training is the same way. We want our dog to be well behaved but we find it challenging to put in the time it takes to make that happen.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in training their dogs is that they try to practice in the exact environment where they are having trouble. I call this “practicing at your performance.” Have you ever had to give a speech, or a recital? How many hours did you spend practicing in a quiet room by your self? What about in front of a friendly audience in you living room? Do you decide to run a marathon and wake up one day and run 26 miles? I doubt it. Accomplishing these goals can take hours, weeks and months of practice before you ever take the stage.

The same applies to training your dog. Say for example your dog is out of control when you encounter another dog while walking on leash. Your dog barks and lunges and you generally have to drag him off in another direction. You would like to replace this behavior with a dog who can sit quietly while another dog passes within 10 feet.

This is a reasonable goal, but you cannot start by practicing this behavior while out walking your dog. Asking your dog to perform a behavior they have not had sufficient practice on is unfair and often results in the handler being disappointed or even angry when the dog cannot deliver up an expert performance. You will need to start by making sure your dog can sit quietly with a dog 25 ft away, then 15 ft away then 10 ft away. This could take weeks or months of practice before you ever attempt it out on a walk.

But practice doesn’t have to be a chore. Keep in mind that it will take time, but the more practice sessions you do, the faster you will achieve your goal. Here are some tips to help you achieve your training goals!

  1. It doesn’t have to be a process. One of the biggest hurdles to practicing is getting started. We tend to think we need to spend a lot of time getting organized, cutting up treats, clearing a space, etc. The truth is you can sneak in a little practice at any time. Have some leftovers? Practice a few behaviors before feeding them to the dog. Time to eat? Ask your dog to do some tricks before putting down the bowl. Better yet, get them to work for their meals.
  2. Have treats everywhere. Purchase some attractive containers and place them strategically around the house. Remote treats should be non-perishable, not too stinky, but still something your dog is willing to work for. Freeze dried treats are a really good option in this case. This allows you to reward good behavior any time you see it.
  3. Reward for everyday activities. All out practice sessions are great, but training that is integrated into your daily life is the most effective. Need your dog to sit when he sees another dog on a walk? Start training sits all over your house. Before going out, before coming in, before going up stairs, before getting out of the crate. The more automatic the behavior becomes, the easier it will be to use out in the real world.