I get this question asked a lot, actually. Between a busy business, two small children (my daughter is 3 years old and my son is now 17 months), preparing for a possible entrance to graduate school, and maintaining friendships and a husband… well, the dogs don’t get a lot of dedicated training time. I think I’m not unusual in this though. Most of my clients have busy lives, and very few have lives that center around their dogs. The average family attends a dog training class in order to make Fido a civilized member of the family that they can live with, not because they adore training for the sake of training. When people attend a training class, and get sent home with their homework handouts, I think a lot of them assume they need to devote 20-30 minutes, in one chunk of time, to train their dogs. This is an overwhelming assumption for a lot of people. The result is that they either don’t do the training at all, or they fail to maximize the training time they have with the dog.
So where do I find the time? How do I manage to work in teaching new skills and rehearsing old ones into every day life?
The answer depends on whether it is a skill the dog has been introduced to already, or if it brand new. If it is brand new, I might spend 5 minutes working with the dog after dinner in the kitchen while my husband is getting my kids ready for bed – The Five Minute Introduction. If it has already been introduced in a five minute session, we will probably never spend that long on it again. Instead, I will work it in to my daily interactions with my dogs.
Let’s go over an example: Sit.
So, I’ve just attended Basic Obedience, and we were walked through how to lure our dogs into a sit from a standing position. After reading our “How Dogs Learn” handout, I know that dogs don’t generalize well… so I’m probably going to have to reteach it in a five minute session now that we’re at home. I find five minutes when I can work, uninterrupted, with minimal distractions (for me, that five minute time is while my husband helps the kids brush their teeth… for you, that will probably be a different time – we’ll brainstorm those in a minute). So I grab a handful of treats, do three repetitions of sit (Say “sit”, lure dog’s nose up, click and then treat when rump hits the ground) using a treat. I move to a slightly different place in the kitchen and repeat, seeing if this time I can do a “fake out” — this time luring without a treat in my hand, but still clicking and treating for the rump hitting the ground. Yay! Fido is doing great. If after these six reps, I still have some time, maybe we go practice in a different room, or I practice sitting down instead of standing. After our five minutes, we’re done and I go about life as usual.
Now that Fido has had his Five Minute Introduction to “sit” we’re going to start integrating it into life. Next time I go to open the back door for him to go out to the backyard, I’ll grab a treat and lure him into a sit, then treat him and open the back door. Same thing when I grab his leash for a walk, or feed him his breakfast, or dinner… you get the idea. After a day or two of this, we can probably skip treating him, since these are tied to other rewards: access to the backyard, meals, leashing up to go for a walk, etc. If Fido doesn’t sit, he doesn’t get to go outside… you try again a few minutes later, until he is successful. At this point, sit is just a part of life.
The Five Minute Intro:
So when can you work a Five Minute Intro into your life? How about when you…
- Are waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning?
- Are hanging out in the “smallest room in the house?”
- While you are getting ready for your day (treats in a jar on the bathroom counter)?
- Eat your breakfast?
- Feed your dog her breakfast?
- Are watching TV and a commercial comes on?
- Before our after your dog’s morning/evening walk?
- On your dog’s morning/evening walk?
- Are waiting for the microwave to cook a frozen dinner?
- Are waiting for water to boil to cook some pasta (you get the idea – sometime during dinner prep)?
- Have finished putting the kids down for bed?
- While you get ready for bed?
- What else can you think of…
Daily Rehearsals (or Teachable Moments):
These are times when you naturally interact with your dog and control access to a reward (food, toy, freedom, attention). How about when you…
- Feed your dog breakfast/dinner?
- Open the back door to the backyard?
- Put on a leash?
- Take off a leash?
- Open the front door for a walk?
- Pet your dog?
- Brush/groom your dog (assuming they like this)?
- Open the door or tailgate to let your dog into the car?
- Open the car door to let your dog out of the car?
- Throw a ball?
- Allow your dog to grab a tug?
- Throw a frisbee?
- Let your dog off-leash at the park?
- Invite your dog onto the sofa/bed?
- However else you interact with your dog…
This method works for most basic obedience behaviors and tricks: sit, down, stand, stay, name, watch me, come, back up, sit pretty, spin, shake, speak, etc. It has the added benefit of teaching your dog that living in a human house comes with some rules and expectations — and most pet dogs desperately need a little more structure in their lives.
So, no more excuses! Find five minutes a day to work with your dog to teach him something new… then work the new skill into daily life. Once you get the basics down, you can spend your five minutes on working on more advanced skills that will take more than one session to build before using every day (like sending to a bed, leave it, hush, etc.)