Okay, when you decided to get a dog you knew you would have to train it, but really you had no idea how hard that would be. So now you signed up for a dog training class or found a trainer (good for you!) but they’re giving you all this homework and how do you have time to do that every day? This is a very common problem, and one that I think can be mostly mitigated by carefully slotting 1-5 minute training slots in throughout the day. Yes, you will still have to spend some time training your dog, but hopefully that is part of the fun of dog ownership! Dog Training Happens.
Dog training happens every single time you interact with your dog; use this to your advantage. Every single time you feed your dog, give them fresh water, let them out of the crate, put on their leash, open a door, pet them, or cuddle them in your lap you are training your dog. They are constantly learning what works and what doesn’t work in order to gain access to things they want.
Here’s an example. You put young Fido on leash and go to the door to take him outside. Fido is super excited for his walk and starts leaping at the door- whining, barking, and flinging himself against the door in a fit of puppy enthusiasm. You, as a concerned puppy owner, quickly open the door and let him charge down to the sidewalk to start his walk. What did your puppy just learn? How, in his mind, did he get the door to open? Fido has learned that the only way to open a door is to perform this set of puppy antics. In this scenario, I fully expect that Fido will still be leaping and throwing himself at the door when he is a fully grown dog, because otherwise how will it open?
On the other hand, what would Fido learn if you stood there and waited until he realized that this behavior wasn’t working, and stopped momentarily to look at you, and in that instant of calm, the door opened? What about if as you approach the door you asked him for a sit and then opened the door? Would your life be easier and less stressful if by the time Fido weighs 90 lbs he had learned that the door opens when he is calmly sitting or standing by it? I bet it would be.
This same scenario could be replaced with behaviors and consequences like pawing at your leg to get pet, jumping up on you for cuddles, or begging under the table for food. Each of these is a situation where you can teach your dog that another behavior can grant access to these wonderful things, but that the behaviors you like won’t get them anything.
Fitting in the Formal Training
You will still have to do your homework, but you should spread it over the course of the day, not try to do it in a single one-hour session when you get home from work. Here are some things I recommend to my clients.
1. Your dog will benefit more from training spread throughout the day and setting aside a block of time can be really difficult, so don’t try to do it all at once! Break it up into short 1-5 minute sessions.
2. Choose one behavior to reinforce 10 times before breakfast. Use the kibble from you dog’s bowl and have them work for it. Small, quick behaviors are good for this (like sit, down, or touch). Then choose a different behavior to reinforce 10 times before dinner.
3. When they're on leash and ready to go out for a walk, pick another simple behavior to do ten times before leaving the house. You should already have treats with you for the walk, so it doesn’t take any extra preparation.
4. When you’re out for their walk, stop at red lights and ask for two behaviors. Choose to stop every three block or thirty steps (or whatever interval you like) and ask for some of the behaviors you have worked on. Occasionally step suddenly back and call them to “come”!
5. For training your dog to lie on their bed, set up the bed next to the couch when you're watching TV and give the dog a treat on it when they come over to investigate it. If they stay and lie down keep treating them. If they wander off- no problem, but if they come back, drop another treat. This will start to show them that hanging out on their bed is the best place to be!
6. Teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash does take dedicated training time, but you can do this during times when you would be out walking them anyway.
7. Lastly, see if you have other times in the day when you can do a minute of training. How long does it take for you coffee to brew? How about the water to boil for pasta? How long are the commercial breaks in the TV show that you were too impatient to Tivo? As a last resort, keep a small container of dry treats in the bathroom…
If you really don’t have time, you might want to consider hiring someone to do “day training”. This is something that I (and several other trainers in my area) offer. For a fee, a trainer will come to your house and work with your dog while you’re at work. Will you still have to train your dog? Absolutely! But their training will progress much more quickly if they are being worked on with a professional during the day.
Training is extremely important and needs to start early and happen often. Please don’t underestimate its importance and do figure out how to find the time. Your dog deserves a good life and this is the easiest way to ensure that that’s what they get!