Developing a Training Program
For the novice handler, just the words “Training Program” sound daunting. Many of us don’t think of our training as any sort of ‘program’, particularly if we are following another trainer and using elements of that trainer’s structured program. We train, we teach, we mess up and re-teach, and somehow make it to trial day. Whether we are aware of it or not, we do have a training program that we follow (or perhaps stumble through). But is it a good one?
A training program is the formal description of how we teach our dogs the exercises and bring them along from foundation to finished competition dog. There are several characteristics that successful handlers share when it comes to developing their training programs. Good handlers with good programs:
Understand how dogs learn behaviors
Develop a successful relationship with their dogs
Learn how to communicate expectations and information to their dogs (i.e., teaching)
Know what works best with their particular dog
Scaffold and sequence exercises to build out the training
Carefully proof and assess the exercises
Prepare for the trial picture
Maintain the quality of trained exercises for the length of the dog’s career
ELEMENTS OF A TRAINING PROGRAM
As demonstrated in the list above, there are many elements that go into a successful training program. These components take handlers from the very beginning all the way through to the very end. Their implementation will vary from handler to handler, and even from handler to dog, and there is no one set way to do any of them. That’s the beauty of a training program—it can be customized to each dog and handler, and it should be!
This graphic below shows the major elements of a structured training program: relationship building, motivating, teaching, scaffolding, sequencing, assessing, and maintaining.
Always start with relationship. Relationship-building should be a key part of any training program. Build that connection, trust, and engagement. You should not have to force your dog to want to be with you and interact with you. So this means you need a good relationship in which your dog enjoys you, looks forward to being with you, and trusts you. Relationship includes everything we do to bond and build connections, including positive interactions, play sessions, games, exercise sessions, training time, socialization experiences, personal play, and even just spending quality hang-out time together. Everything you do will either enhance or strain this relationship. Start this stage the moment your dog comes home. Continue it forever.
Before we can teach the dog, we must motivate the dog. The handler must learn what actually motivates their dog, and to what degree. This will be different for every dog. Some dogs love the tug. Some prefer the ball. Others prefer food. Some dogs love personal play and contact. Through careful trial and error, find out which motivators your dog enjoys, and to what level. This will allow you to match the motivator to the desired behavior and desired energy level. Need the dog to think? Then you will most likely use food, because when that ball comes out, the thinking goes out the window. Need more pep and enthusiasm in an already-learned behavior? Then bring out the toy. Motivators change as the environment changes (increasing or decreasing in value), and even as the dog ages. Know your dog, and use what works for both of you!
Handlers spend most of their time and focus here, on teaching behavior. However, successful teaching requires that the first two elements—relationship and motivation—are already in place. This component of the training program covers a lot of ground, such as:
Creating the right environment for your dog to learn with minimal distraction at first
Using what motivates your dog as part of your play and training
Creating authentic focus and engagement with you
Capturing and reinforcing the desired behavior
Marking the correct behaviors and rewarding them
Shaping or luring desired behaviors
Splitting behaviors into smaller components
Chaining smaller components together to create a full behavior chain (such as backchaining the retrieve)
Correcting or fixing behaviors
To be successful in the teaching phase, the handler must understand the basics of how dogs learn, and how to communicate expectations and information effectively. How do you set up or capture behaviors? What criteria do you want for the behavior? When do you mark and reward? How do you mark and reward? Do you correct? If so, when and how? When do you use a lure? When should it be faded, and how?
This section requires a little trial and error to find what works, and to fine-tune your timing and ability to communicate effectively with your dog. Your knowledge and skill will grow as you gain more experience. It will be difficult with your first dog, and then when you get your second dog, it may be even harder because the second dog will be so unlike the first dog! By the third dog, you may finally feel like you are getting a better handle on it after the experiences training and titling your previous two dogs. Stay dedicated, keep learning, and you will get it!
Scaffolding refers to building up the dog’s training from start to finish. It is closely related to sequencing, although sequencing involves selecting the order in which to build. Proper scaffolding requires that you lay a good foundation first. Foundation is key. Mistakes in your foundation will show up everywhere else in your training, and handlers often find that they are correcting their dogs later for mistakes they themselves made in laying the foundation. So take your time and make it a good, solid foundation.
Once we have a solid foundation, then we build on it as the dog grows in its ability and capability. We may increase the criteria or requirements for each exercise, and ask for a little more precision or a longer duration. Then we begin to build behavior chains, and our structure rises a little bit higher toward the final picture of a finished dog.
Scaffolding requires that we have a foundation for all parts of Schutzhund—tracking, obedience, and protection. The foundation that is laid must accommodate all three phases, as there is some crossover. For example, in both obedience and protection you need a solid “heel” command and “here” command. If you are advancing in protection faster than you are in obedience, then you will eventually reach a point where your progress is inhibited because your dog needs to have a reliable “here” and “heel” command to move forward.
Sequencing is developing the logical progression from foundation to finish. It’s one thing to lay a strong foundation. But now what? When and how do you start asking for more personal responsibility from the dog? Or extend duration? Or start proofing exercises? Or begin chaining behaviors together? Which exercises build on others? Which ones must you teach first? When do you take the next step, and what is that next step? Like teaching, this part of the training program is often learned by trial and error, and improves with experience. However, sequencing and scaffolding are two aspects where a knowledgeable mentor can be invaluable. They can coach you through which behaviors to add when, how to string behaviors together, and in what order.
There are many levels of assessing. There is the constant mental assessment of whether the dog's behavior matches up to your expectations or desired criteria. There is proofing a well-learned behavior against various distractions, or changing the environment, such as rotating to a different field in tracking. Creating the trial picture is also part of assessing, as you are informally assessing how you and your dog might react in a trial situation. It points out any flaws in your current training program, and allows you to better prepare your team (like a practice quiz before the big test). And of course, there is the formal assessment of a trial, when you finally put your training program to the official test. Assessments provide you with valuable feedback about your performance and your training.
Every training program needs an aspect of maintenance. If we simply stopped rewarding behaviors that were considered "trained", then the dog's performance in these areas would suffer. So we must have a way to maintain these high level behaviors in an already trained dog, periodically returning to them and pulling out pieces of a behavior chain to brush up on. Even a dog that already has its IPO3 will still have something that needs maintenance and fine-tuning. Whether it is improving the speed of the sit or improving overall athletic conditioning, there's always just a little bit of work to be done. Schutzhund is a perpetual balancing act with behaviors.
When it comes to developing a training program, be an observant student of other experienced handlers and trainers. Watch closely, ask questions, listen. And when it comes to your program, be a pragmatist. Use what works well and maintains that positive relationship with your dog. Understand that what works for one person may not work for you. Lastly, don’t become so locked into your program that you become unteachable and uncooperative! Be open to ideas.
Looking for possible resources? If you are new to training dogs for competitive behaviors, then I highly recommend Denise Fenzi's and Deborah Jones' Dog Sports Skills series. This series covers Relationship, Motivation, Play, Focus and Engagement. It discusses many of the finer points of motivating, playing with, and engaging your dog that are not always directly taught at most Schutzhund clubs. These can be helpful supports to your best resources: a knowledgeable mentor at a good Schutzhund club!
Photos by Ivana Karlsen/vom Rebel Yelle German Shepherds