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After you decide on some new skills you’d like to teach your dog, you’ll be ready to start training. To maximize her learning potential and make sure you both enjoy the training experience, keep the following basic tips in mind:
• When teaching new skills, keep training sessions short and sweet. Like kids, dogs don’t have long attention spans. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but an ideal average training session should last 15 minutes or less. Within that session, you can work on one skill or switch between a few different skills. To keep things interesting, try doing 5 to 15 repetitions of one behavior and then doing 5 to 15 repetitions of another behavior. You can also practice new skills and keep old ones polished by doing single repetitions at convenient times throughout the day. For example, before giving your dog a tasty new chew bone, ask her to sit or lie down to earn it.
• Quit while you’re ahead. End training sessions on a good note, with a skill you know your dog can do well, and be sure to stop before either one of you gets tired, bored or frustrated.
• For dogs, English is a second language. Dogs aren’t born understanding English. They can learn the significance of specific words, like “sit” and “walk” and “treat,” but when humans bury those familiar words in complex sentences, dogs sometimes have difficulty understanding. They can also get confused when people use different words for the same thing. For example, some people will confuse their dogs by saying, “Fluffy, down!” one day and “Sit down, Fluffy!” another day. Then they wonder why Fluffy doesn’t respond the same way every time. When teaching your dog a cue or command, decide on just one word or phrase, and make sure you and your family use it clearly and consistently.
• Take baby steps. Dogs, just like people, learn best when new tasks are broken down into small steps. For example, you can’t go out and line dance unless you learn all of the individual steps first! When teaching your dog a new skill, begin with an easy first step and increase difficulty gradually. If you’re training your dog to stay, start by asking her to stay for just 3 seconds. After some practice, try increasing the duration of her stay to 8 seconds. When your dog has mastered an 8-second stay, make things a little harder by increasing the time to 15 seconds. Over the next week or two, continue to gradually increase the duration of the stay from 15 seconds to 30 seconds to a minute to a few minutes, etc. By training systematically and increasing difficulty slowly, you’ll help your dog learn faster in the long run.
• If you run into trouble, go back a few steps. If you’re training your dog to do something new and you stop making progress, you may have increased the difficulty of the skill too quickly. Similarly, if you’re practicing a behavior your dog hasn’t performed in a while and she seems a little rusty, she may need some help remembering what you want her to do. If you run into training challenges like these, just refresh your dog’s memory by making the skill a little easier for a few repetitions. Go back to a step that you know your dog can successfully perform, and practice that for a while before trying to increase difficulty again.
Practice everywhere, with everyone If you learn that two plus two equals four in a classroom, you’ll take that information with you wherever you go. Dogs, however, learn very specifically and don’t automatically apply their knowledge in different situations and places as well as people do. If you teach your dog to sit on cue in your kitchen, you’ll have a beautifully kitchen-trained dog. But she might not understand what you mean when you ask her to sit in other locations. If you want your dog to perform new skills everywhere, you’ll need to practice them in multiple places—your home, your yard, out on walks, at friends’ houses, at the park and anywhere else you take your dog.
• Use real rewards. Be sure to reward your dog with things she truly finds rewarding. Some dogs will happily work for dry kibble when training in your living room but ignore it if you’re training in the park. Because the park’s a more distracting environment, paying attention there is a harder job for your dog. Pay her accordingly by using a reward worth working for, like small pieces of chicken or cheese, or a chance to run off-leash at the dog park with her buddies. Also keep in mind that what your dog considers rewarding at any given time may change. If she’s just eaten a big meal, a scratch behind the ears or a game of tug might be most rewarding. If she hasn’t eaten in a while, she’ll probably work enthusiastically for tasty treats.
• Be patient. Training your dog will take time and effort—but it can be a great deal of fun for you and for her. And your hard work will pay off. With patience and persistence, you and your dog can accomplish great things.