A teaching plan
It is normal in teaching and education to set clear goals and measurable objectives, where accountability for the learner’s progress is part of a system. This accountability is usually measured by some means of testing or assessment. The question that faces all teachers in such a system is whether to prepare the learners to pass the test or prepare the individuals with the skills, knowledge and understanding they need for their future. Most teachers will try to do both when the pressure allows.
Your responsibility to your dog is entirely centric to the relationship you have, then those who you (both) may share your life with and then the wider community. Progress is at a rate for your agenda, not for anyone else’s.
This gives us the freedom to progress at a rate measured only by success, not by a certain date (must have this ready for ….); a specific age (by 14 months old the dog should be able to …) or anyone else’s expectations. It will take as long as it takes to reach the level of success you have set. This may be 5 months or 5 years, it will depend on your skills as a teacher, the time you can invest and the skills and abilities of your dog. It is so much more than a journey with mile posts as a journey with outstanding views and shared perspectives.
Example: Waiting in the car whilst the door is opened.
a) What is the behaviour(s) of the dog and people involved?
b) What are the skills required to be successful, for both dog and people?
c) How can I teach and learn the skills?
d) Activities to enhance, maintain and reward success?
Begin with of a clear description of what this looks like when considered it “successful”. Success is a personal choice:
- Do I need to add a cue three times?
- Do I need to always put a treat in the car as the door is opened?
- Will the dog need to wait whilst another dog comes out?
- Will the dog need to wait until the lead / harness is on?
The reality is this is likely to be “work in progress” for some years, increasing in the level of expectation. It will have stages of success where you begin with safety, graduate through to “can manage” and then realise you have arrived at “got this”.
It will also be reflected in the amount of time invested in teaching and maintaining this.
Factors that affect success may be the frequency of the activity, several times a day is quite different from once a week. The type of outing will make a difference to the dog’s arousal level and difficulty in achieving this.
So we cannot set a specific date for completion, or a specific age.
The level of success is also a personal choice. We will be teaching our youngsters a very wide range of skills, behaviours, and activities. Some of those will have a higher value and significance to us than others depending on our own choices and lifestyle. If you are daily walking a dog in a public place, then lead management, off-lead responses and social skill may be top priority. If care travel is limited to twice a month, then the waiting whilst the door is opened may be further down your list. Find the levels that matter, work out what you can live with or not live without and invest the time in teaching those skills.
There are many top canine sports dogs with a minimal range of lifeskills. We each have our own and different priorities.
The teaching plan should be broken down into the full description of the behaviour which gives our mind a clear understanding of where we may be starting from we can go. (A Clear Plan)
A breakdown of the skills involved to be successful, which are likely to overlap with other activities. For this example:
Discrimination: the car door opening is a cue for holding position, the verbal and/or body cue to move towards the person is a cue to move. Teaching the dog the skills of discrimination through faux movements of the car door that results in rewards for holding position, comes from understanding of how to teach and develop a discriminatory skill.
When we focus on the underpinning skills our teaching, and learning, becomes much more effective and efficient. Different learning activities nurture and develop those skills, it is the learning of the skills that increases the success and our vision of progress.
Conditioning a response: this a planning to condition a specific response to avoid an unwanted response in the future. The faux movement of the car door can be conditioned very early, before the pup has learned it signifies release. We condition a desired response by placing rewards in the car, around the dog’s resting place, taking a chair to sit by the open door and have a picnic etc.,
This is a person-skill of anticipation, planning for the future. Waiting until something goes wrong before you respond is never a good plan. We may say this is a “reactive trainer”. [snort]
For this example I would be loading the area where the dog is in the car with plenty of treats to keep them busy and engaged before and during the door opening. I would not allow the dog to become conditioned that doors opening always signify jumping out, nor would I let the dog learn (become conditioned) that the engine being turned off is a pattern that results in jumping out for a walk.
All these elements and consideration are part of the planning process.
Teaching, or rearing a young animal is part of all interactions. As we greet the youngster we may be filled with such joy that we become over excited. This will be reflected and magnified by the dog but as the responsible adult, we should always be considering the future of this emotional bomb-burst. It will get stronger with repetition, it will get bigger and more powerful as the dog grows, and it may not always be convenient.
It is much, much harder to try to teach something new when it has already gone wild. A key ingredient of success is anticipating “go wild” during the early months and canalling energy and instincts in a useful direction. These are mostly lifeskills which can benefit from more than daily interactions but focussed training sessions.
This will be of benefit to both partners in the relationship. The direction of the training will need thoughtfulness and discipline, skills of focus and observation – from both parties.
By “going to school” the skills learned from schooling and being schooled transfer to all avenues of living together:
We learn more about each other.
We learn what they are good at and what they struggle with – the same for us. I am good at teaching movement and action, and not at teaching stillness and resting (although that is increasing with age!)
We learn what they find rewarding, the different values of rewards, and activities they enjoy. Chasing a treat or catching it? Stroking on the chest or a rub around the ribs?
We see them develop and get views of the future dog they will be.
They get to learn how we move our hands, what makes us laugh, what makes us hesitate.
We learn to break down learning into the smallest bites and measure the size of those bites by pleasure in the success.
When we try to jump ahead too quickly we learn to recognise we have gone too fast.
We learn to see how all things are connected by common skills. Learning to chase after a treat along the ground develops eye-mouth co-ordination, management of energy, ability to slow down and change momentum to avoid overshooting, a prompt turn around for a repeat of the same pleasure – these are all skills that are key parts of retrieving, jumping, stopping, greeting.
We learn to observe, measure and enjoy progress and see the smallest of changes and how that impacts on both us and the dog.
It still surprises me how teaching a dog 5 simple behaviours (for example: step in a box, feet on a platform, touch with a paw, go around a chair) develops skills that spill over into all life. It changes the relationship into a balanced partnership, it changes the view point of both learners.
Through focussed teaching many of the perceived areas of rocky ground begin to smooth away, and not as a result of removing the rocks but by a deepening of understanding and a learning of new skills. A ten minutes session of focussed learning together can easily replace the benefit of a 40 minute jaunt.
I have always enjoyed teaching all my dogs to “do things”. This classifies me as a trainer, rather than a changer of behaviour. I enjoy the teaching process, and of course teaching is always about changing behaviour but often in the sense of construction: a building of new mountains, not in a filling of ravines.
If we view “traffic chasing” as a problem to be solved, then a solution is the pathway ahead. But if we see “traffic chasing” as an absence of skills then we set about teaching those skills.
Identify Isolate Learn Practise Integrate
These are the stages that develop a skill. We may recognise that the dog is clumsy when aroused. This can be evident when greeting people with crashing into people and furniture, running with a toy and not being able to stop, leaping with frustration when watching other dogs play or move fast.
By designing a series of activities that teach the dog the required skills of:
perception – where the surrounding world is in relevance to your own body, and
motor skills of fine movement of foot placement, turning, reversing etc
We can build these skills outside the arousing situations. We will teach the dog how to step in and out of boxes, how to move different parts of their bodies in isolation, and changing their momentum when on the move. Just a few exercises with focussed practise and paced for success will quickly be transferred to other situations.
Our teaching plan will build these creative games and then monitor progress. We shall devise different combinations and extensions of the games to build the skills.
What to include
What would be beneficial for the individual dog to learn?
We need to consider, whether for a puppy, rehabilitation, either mental or physical what are the needs of that individual.
For instance, we understand a puppy may need opportunities to develop social skills, but if that dog is going to live in a limited urban environment then it does need to learn “street skills”, but perhaps not running across fields skills. If the future is one of single dog household then the skills developed may be different than a multi dog household.
We should not be trying to plan for all eventualities. There is only so much time and only so much learning that can be achieved and we should prioritise to ensure that the necessities are learned well and be clear what learning we are trying to achieve. Provided the puppy has experienced varied situations and been allowed to learn how to adapt, it is the process of adaptation (a skill) we are enabling, not a check list of (over) exposures.
A dog with a long coat that will need regular grooming will need to learn the necessary husbandry behaviours, a short-coated breed, perhaps not.
There is no blanket curriculum for “puppies” or “rescue/shelter” dogs. Each individual needs to be assessed as to what they need to learn for their well-being and future.
What is needed for the programme?
The programme is the future lifestyle or tasks of the dog. This will have specific considerations that need to be identified and the dog prepared for. It can be a lifestyle with children or a lifestyle with livestock. It may involve travelling for sports events or living in an environment with many visitors throughout the day.
Planning is a skill
Although it may sound cool to be a spontaneous trainer, personally I do not have time to waste by just giving it a go, and then realising 4 months later I should have given it more thought. I also have a responsibility to my learners, students, clients and especially dogs, to make the effort to avoid screwing it up – which inevitably arrives when we have not planned and prepared well.
There are times when a little quality time with a specific dog is very much a pots of treats, dog, object and see what emerges. But this would be part of my plan, to allow the dog an unstructured time to have my focus.
Learning how to plan, reaching as wide as we can to bring together all the considerations that can affect our teaching and the progress of the learner before we begin, is our responsibility.
The more we plan, the more efficient and effective we can be with our time. There is such a thing as over-planning when we need to apply it to see how it flows, but then also develop the skills of review and making changes.
Planning is a skill that improves with practise and will become faster. Planning is part of confidence to begin your training, to be able to relax and fully immerse in the moment you are teaching and be clear about what you are doing.
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