3 phases for a successful dog training session
When it comes to training our dogs, we want to provide them and us with a really good experience.
Why? Firstly the obvious, it is more fun for all of us if we’re having good experience. Secondly sharing positive emotions of joy and motivation deepens our bonds to our fur faces. And thirdly, because joy is the best fuel for attention & the brain’s ability to learn new stuff, this applies to us as well as to our dogs. Last but so not least, our dog and we ourselves will be keen on engaging into the next session after we had a good experience; having in mind that regular sessions are key for a sustainable
change in behaviour, we really wanna press home this particular advantage. To collect the benefits mentioned, consistent structure is our tight homie for dog training sessions.
We aim to be focused, have our canines focused, we want to do everything we planed for the particular session, and, of course, we want to achieve progress. Looking at this list of ambitious goals it falls into place that we need some structure to ensure accomplishing them. I suggest a well-working 3-phases structure of (1) opening routine, (2) main training and (3) closing routine.
1st phase: opening routine
An opening routine can be understood as a gentle and positive kick-off for the whole session. It consists of directing everyone’s attention towards the upcoming interaction, and of some simple exercises our dog’s already are able to perform fluently.
When we take the time of 20-40 mins to train our dogs, that’s really really exciting for them as they LOVE our attention, the quality time spent and of course the individual currency we choose to reward them. Let’s catch their excitement and transform it into being focused on us right from the beginning. This can be achieved super easily by focusing ourselves: we want to be genuinely excited, but not over-excited, we want to be motivated and eager to engage in the training. This is what our dogs then will pick up via mood transfer – just the right level of emotions for a successful session.
To help ourselves getting our own energy right in the first place, we just speak out loud what we’re thinking, this gives us the chance to listen to our own voice whilst adjusting our energy. When I say energy, I mean our emotions. Our emotions are directly influenced by our thoughts, so speaking thoughts out loud is quite a good instrument as we get to check if our tone of voice currently matches the emotions of genuine excitement & motivation.
Here is an example of how an opening routine could look like:
I enter the kitchen with the intention to now train my dog. I call for him and kneel down for some pets whilst I take a couple of deep breaths and establishing order in my thoughts on what it is that I want to do today. Calmly and joyful I say “Dude, you know, I would love to train with you right now. As you demonstrated a couple times that you’re quite fond of treats, I suggest I get them out and we start off with doing some cool things you already can do. And then, my boy, I’ll teach you something new today, it’s called roll-over, I bet you’ll love it. And you know what? After that I will sit down with you and give you some extra pets because I know already you will be the best good boy ever.”
This helps us to (1) focus on what we plan to be doing, (2) direct our attention towards our dog, (3) directs our dog’s attention towards us and (4) it provides guidance for our dog’s emotions – a soft level of joy always comes with a feeling of love and safety – this is exactly what we’re after. From our dog’s perspective, of course, they do not understand our spoken language as such. But they easily pick up our energy level, they feel our emotions in their body. This is called attunement and is quite a common thing – if you’re interested in reading more about this, check out my post on attuning to our dog’s emotions. If we do this each time, if we make it a routine, we’ll soon realise how much it increases our own and our dog’s focus, how quickly he’ll pick up your energy level and subsequently how well the training then will go. Also, this routine helps our dog anticipating what is going to happen next – especially for dogs who are in need of guidance, leadership and safety this is super important.
Some simple exercises is what you want to start the session off with. Just grab whatever currency our dog choses (toy, treats, words, cuddles etc.) and enter the arena 🙂 For the sake of this post, I will continue with the currency of treats.
We begin with asking our dogs for a couple of things they already can perform fluently, like sit, lay down, give the paw etc. We want them to show off, we want them to impress us! If you’re new to dog training and your dog doesn’t have much of a repertoire just yet, taking treats gently out of your hand is equally helpful here.
Either way, we want to make sure to voice reward for every wanted behaviour, keep up the communication. If your dog happens to be deaf, use a particular way to pet him or a particular gesture instead.
The more often we train, the more behaviours our canines will have acquired to show off within this opening routine phase.
We keep doing the simple things for about 2-3 minutes until we feel we’re all focused and have arrived in the practice.
2nd phase: main training
This is the super focused main phase of our session that gets the lion share of our overall time. Here we teach new behaviours to our dogs as well as continue working on exercises we introduced in earlier sessions.
We also use the main phase for increasing the level of difficulty for a particular exercise we’ve been practicing already. Let’s say my dog recently acquired the skill of laying down which I taught him in the living room where we always practice. An increase in difficulty could be to practice the lay down with him in a different room of my place, like the bathroom or the bedroom. Different indoor environments represent a gentle increase in difficulty that allow the dog’s brain to internalise behaviour sustainably. Super important when it comes to the increase of difficulty: We rather take 2 steps back than letting our dog fail twice.
Our goal is for him to confidently show the wanted behaviour in different settings which takes as long as it takes. Slower is faster, sustainability needs time.
So if I realise my dog is not laying down in the bathroom (from his perspective it might just be awkward), with an attitude of “that’s ok” I take him right back to the living room where he can successfully demonstrate the lay down a couple of times and gain back his confidence. Then I just try again, but in the hallway half way to the bathroom. If it works, that’s great, we do it a couple of times – sublime success for today’s session. If it doesn’t work – no worries, back to the living room for today. Taking steps back is totally fine and absolutely expected. It characterises a good teacher to catch their students where they’re at and teach them from there, ensuring they are happy and feeling comfortable.
More tips for a successful main phase
As this phase is all about acquiring new skills and also practicing fluency of already acquired skills, our timing of correction and rewarding is crucial. Only when we have really good timing our dogs get the chance to catch what it is that we want from them. Correcting unwanted behaviour before it occurs as well as rewarding wanted behaviour exactly the moment when it occurs require that we observe our dogs constantly and closely. Only then it’s possible for us to foresee what they are about to do and catch what they do the very moment they are actually doing it. Brilliant timing is a skill that we need to acquire and practice ourselves, it includes reading and instantly understanding our dogs body language and focusing on the right things depending on the exercise being practiced. I recommend getting help from a professional here to learn that skill in the first place – our dog’s success depends on our skills as a teacher.
Other than timing, it is also important to be consistent with the signals we use to ask our dog for a certain behaviour – this applies equally to voice commands and hand signals. We gotta stick to what we chose, always saying the exact same word for the behaviour we want him to perform. Same with our hand signals and body language, if we chose to hold up our pointer to signalise our dog to sit, we always want to use this particular gesture when we ask him to sit. He needs to see/hear the same signal again and again in order to build the neuronal connection to that very signal. Consistency in hand signals and voice commands make it so much easier for our fur faces to remember the meaning and thus respond promptly to our signals.
The main phase is the most exhausting for our dog, it is decent hard work for him to listen to our words and to read our body language. Every dog has different mental capacity – some can train for 40 mins, some for 20mins, some for 5mins before showing signs of mental exhaustion. It is crucial to be able to catch and read signs of mental exhaustion as this is the very point where you should close the main phase and proceed to the closing routine. If we do not catch these signs and keep training, our dog’s nervous system can be charged up to a point where a gentle and smooth discharge is not possible anymore. The result then often is a dog going nuts: they start hunting their own tail, they wildly run around, they freak out with their toys, they become hyper active. This is an unpleasant state for a dog to be in and it is the total opposite of a good experience for everyone involved. Let’s keep in mind that every dog can have their own way of showing signs of mental exhaustion, so again I recommend to hire a professional here to have you safe with reading and understanding your dog. Common signs of mental exhaustion can include: Attempt of a full body shake where only the head shakes, a full body shake, yawning, itching, licking lips, withdrawing from you, increased nervousness reflecting in that the wanted behavioural response gets worse.
3rd phase – closing routine
The last phase is the closing routine. As the name suggests, we also want to make this a routine. When our session comes to an end for whatever reason, we end as we’ve started – with a couple of things our dogs already performs perfectly and right after, we spent some more quiet time together. This serves the purpose to (1) slowly start discharging the nervous system whilst the brain switches from learning new behaviour to call up familiar behaviour which is significantly less effort and (2) it ensures that we end the session on a successful, positive note. We always want to end a session on a positive note to make sure everyone is keen to engage into the next session next time.
A closing routine could look like this: we ask our dog for a couple of things he can perform fluently, just like we did in the very beginning in our opening routine. Then we let him grab the last treats from our hands followed by showing our empty hands to him. Over time, as this becomes our routine, he will know how to interpret these actions and know the session is over, he will stop anticipating the next signal, the next reward. With this closing routine, we basically share our decision to end the session with our dogs, we give them opportunity to understand and adapt to that we’re done for today.
Again, talking helps heaps: Get your energy into a calm, placid and gentle frequency and speak your thoughts “I knew you would be doing well, you did such a great job. All the things you learned today, I’m so proud of you.” Same as in the opening routine, this allows our dog to attune to our emotions, it literally helps him how to feel about the fact that the session is over. It avoids frustration, disappointment or confusion which are likely to occur if we just abruptly end the session and walk away.
As doggo still has a charged nervous system, we spend some more time without treats/toys etc. with him by sitting down next to him, offering pets, cuddles whilst encouraging him to lay down and rest. Pets help the nervous system to discharge, they calm them down and the released oxytocin suffuses them into sweet happiness and significantly strengthens our canine-human bond. This phase can be understood as a gentle release from all the attention and learning that just took place. I want to emphasise that calming down our dogs is equally important to the training itself. A dog that learns how to rest and how to calm down processes information sustainably, it allows time for the brain to rest the freshly build neuronal connections. Lastly, this quality cuddle time so much adds up to the positive overall experience. And again, we share emotions of joy, relaxation and calm – we literally feel each other.
Side note: If we happen to have missed the signs of mental exhaustion and our dog is going nuts / zooming around during the main phase, chances are he won’t lay down now to rest. Best is to leash him up and taking him on a walk. Steady movement in a medium pace with options to sniff in a very calm (!) environment help the nervous system to discharge. After we return from that walk, we pick up the closing routine with pets and cuddles, making sure he really is relaxing and calming down.
To sum all this up, we use structure for ourselves as well as for our dogs to create a helpful routine for successful training sessions. When you try this on your own with your dog, I encourage you to figure out what works best with you and your dog. My clients Steffi & David’s black Lab Paul for example just needs to lay in contact with his humans who are sitting on the couch. A pet now and then with some calming words is all he needs to gently calm down. Every human-dog-team is unique, so feel free to add elements and ideas to your very routine. Concluding, find here an overview of all 3 phases:
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