There's No GPS in Dog Training - Creating a Plan to Get Results | The Collared Scholar

I stared blankly at the screen.

Rewind, split video, delete, play. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

I was editing a video project, and for the umpteenth time, I let the lecture I was editing bounce off my ears, a dull background noise as I focused my attention on audio levels, on pauses that were a bit too long, and on video quality. 

I hit play again. 

“You have to get clear on the future situation you want to create,” the instructor said as he coached people on navigating their way through change. 

Stop, splice, insert title, play. 

He continued on, and as he did, I finally found myself engaging in his talk. Listening, his words sticking instead of bouncing off as they had for the past several hours, I began thinking about my dog. About our training program. And about my clients. 

I hit play….and let the video run, focusing on the presentation and drawing parallels to my dogs and my training.

“You have to include emotions in your description of the future situation,” the instructor went on. “Write it down. Talk about not only how it looks, but how it feels.” 

I was fully engulfed now, no longer watching as a video editor. Not as a project manager. Not as an employee. But as a student, humbling myself to the lessons that were now resonating hard.

The talk was a presentation given to a group of executives by my friend and colleague, Larry Yatch. It was titled, The Map of Leadership and Life, and in it Larry spoke about how getting from Point A to Point B and instituting real, meaningful change in your life requires a sort of map. A tool to not only give you direction, but also to help you course correct when you wander off of your path.

And as he spoke, I instantly saw the parallel.

I thought about a conversation I recently had with another trainer.

“What is your preferred method of training?” she asked. 

I paused, and she elaborated.

“Do you use a clicker? Markers? E-collars? You know….how do you train?”

I was perplexed. Was there a simple answer to this question? I didn’t think so. 

“I wish I had a better answer for you, but all I can say is…It Depends.” 

“But I mean,” she persisted, “What’s the first thing you grab? Your clicker and a bag of treats?”

I knew my response would be nothing she wanted to hear, but it was honest. “I can’t label my training, because how I train depends on the dog. It depends on the end goal. And it depends on what the dog responds best to.” 

Although I had participated in a number of “one size fits all” training programs before I trained dogs professionally (all of which failed….but that’s a different story), I couldn’t fathom that this generic training approach was still a prevalent ideology.

“I’d train a drivey Malinois destined for a career in protection sports far differently than a Sighthound Mix whose owners simply want her to listen, but who is afraid of her own shadow.” I tried to explain. 

She was quiet for a moment, after which our conversation quickly shifted gears to talk about running a business, about our own personal dogs, and about the trainers we admire.

Why You Need a Training Plan:

 

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MOUNT LAGUNA, Calif. (March 16, 2009) A Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/s) candidate reads his compass during basic land navigation training. Basic land navigation teaches candidates how to read a map, plot coordinates and navigate over various types of terrain. This training is taught during the third phase of the six-month long BUD/s training. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dominique M. Lasco/Released)

Here’s the low down. There is no GPS in dog training. Siri can’t help you here. Cookie cutter training doesn’t work. I promise – it flat out is not effective. You might get some version of results, and you might get a dog that obeys commands, but there will be holes unless the training is customized – unless it’s tailored. A fearful dog compulsed too early can have emotional fallout and develop unwanted behaviors accordingly. An unmotivated dog can struggle with a clicker and treats right off the bat. For this reason, not only do you need a customized plan, but your plan needs to evolve. It needs to grow, change, and pivot with the dog and its individual progress.

Larry tells a story about how during one of the final tests of SEAL Qualification Training (SQT): Land Nav (a navigation training test), he wandered off of his map, trying to take a short cut and landing himself in the midst of a previous rockslide that blocked his path. 

He says “I broke out my radio to call for help, but the mountain peak was in the way, and I was unable to reach anyone. A feeling of helplessness overcame me as it became obvious that without the map, I was doomed to walk throughout the night, blindly following small lights that blinked in the distance, hoping to come across a road that I could eventually follow back to basecamp.” 

He had a map, but he wandered off it, his confidence in his own ability high. He quickly got lost, a choice that led to his nearly failing out of SEAL Training. 

How many times has this happened to you? How many trainers and handlers can you envision who are hyper-confident in their methods? Who think they have this training thing down pat? Who hit the field, run into a roadblock, and instantly become lost, having no idea how to pivot or get back on track because they didn’t have a plan?

Larry says, “That night, I learned a valuable lesson that I carry with me to this day and throughout my life and career.

Knowledge and strength are valuable assets. But knowledge and strength alone won’t get us from our current situation to our desired destination. They are useless without direction. The only way to stay on course, therefore, is to have an accurate map and to have the tools and determination required to use it.”

How to Create a Successful Plan

When it comes to training our dogs, especially if we are professional trainers or handlers, we tend to have a decent idea of “what to do”. We have some tricks up our sleeves, some techniques we tend to lean on, and some strategies we’ve found to be tried and true. But like I said before, cookie cutter training doesn’t work. And flying by the seat of your pants can be a risky proposition when working with your canine counterparts.

So my first step in creating a plan is to get myself very clear on where I am currently, and where I want to go with my training. Plainly stated, I need a start and end point. And I need to be very clear on both.

Understanding the Current Situation

In order to create an effective plan, you need to first get clear on the current situation. (I’ve adapted a little of Larry’s work to tailor this to dog training and also for the sake of brevity for this post, but all in all, the spirit remains.)

When mapping your current situation, ask yourself: Who is the dog at the end of your leash? What are they all about? What are their problem areas? What motivates them? What makes them uncomfortable? What does their routine look like?

In his course, Larry coaches that, when creating a map, he tends to write these things down. This helps him get really clear on the situation he’s in as well as the one he wants to create. And when it comes to training plans, I tend to agree. It’s hard to keep all of these things in your head, so having them jotted down on a piece of paper that you can reference often will do wonders for keeping you on track.

Mapping Out the Future

After getting a good solid understanding of the dog you are working with, their current situation, and the holes in their current program, it becomes time to get clear on the future situation you want to create.

This is the part most dog owners and trainers neglect. The future situation isn’t simply a statement like, “I want my dog to be obedient.” It isn’t some image in your head of the perfectly behaved dog. It isn’t a general statement about tactical moves (i.e. “I want my dog to sit when told.”) Those visualizations aren’t clear enough – they are incomplete. There is far more to creating a future situation than a hazy, general idea.

Here’s the thing. Far too often we neglect state of mind in our training. Far too often we focus all of our attention on teaching an external behavior, and we neglect how we want the dog to BE when performing the task. But, as I always tell my students, you train for state of mind first, and behavior second. That means, I don’t want a terrified dog heeling alongside me, quivering out of her skin because she is even more terrified now than she was to start out with. Sure she may listen to my command, but the state of mind is all wrong. I don’t want the pet dog who needs to be calm in public, practicing a down stay that was conditioned at the height of drive, the dog holding the position but nearly crawling out of his skin while he does. And I don’t want the competitive dog practicing obedience calmly, relaxed and flat as he moves across the field. State of mind matters, and all too often we neglect it.

When mapping out my destination, or as Larry calls it, The Future Situation, I ask myself…. What are my ultimate goals? Am I planning to compete my dog, or do I just want a happy and confident family pet?

Then I ask…. What should my dog’s state of mind look like?

And lastly…. What are my tactical moves? What behaviors am I working on to achieve my ultimate goal while maintaining the correct state of mind?

Write it down. Map it out, and reference it often. My plans are hanging on my refrigerator, and I reflect on them before and after every session.

Fill in the Dots

Now that the start and end points are clearly defined on our map, we can begin to fill in the pieces and develop a plan to get us there. Keep in mind, if we include tactical moves, we need to be flexible. We cannot be rigid with this part, because as much as we’d love to believe that we can take a single pass, map out our techniques, and everything will go as planned…. I guarantee that dog training (at least GOOD dog training) doesn’t work that way. We need to be flexible enough to pivot tactical moves should our original plan prove ineffective. We need to be humble enough to seek knowledge and help, should we run into a roadblock along the way. And we need to always keep the dog, and their responses in mind when progressing down the map. If my dog begins to show stress with a tactic I’ve outlined on my plan, that response moves me away from my future situation of, for example, having a confident dog. This is why including state of mind is so critical in plotting your course. If the dog is showing stress, it’s a sign that I’ve wandered off my map, and if I continue in this direction, I’ll never make it to my destination. Instead, I need to pivot, change my approach to get myself and the dog I’m training back on course and moving once again in the right direction.

Here’s the deal. You don’t have to have a training plan to be successful. For years, I didn’t operate with one. But having everything mapped out before you begin can be huge for keeping you on track.

Without a solid plan or a good understanding of, for example, the end goal, I’ve often seen training plans fall apart. The tactical moves are stored in the handlers head, or are a cookie cutter representation of a training program they’ve followed for years, or the training is planned and instituted at the spur of the moment, the handler walking on the field and figuring out what they want to practice at the last second.

Although this may sound like an organic way to go about training, there are some huge issues with this approach. The problem is threefold. First, without a plan, it can become very easy to lose focus and to lose direction. I’ve seen it far too many times – handlers lacking a plan, hitting a roadblock and becoming stuck, losing motivation and becoming discouraged because they have no idea how to course correct. In addition to losing focus and motivation, it can become very common for handlers and trainers to operate in a way that is completely counter to the real future situation they want to create. They are, for example, neglecting state of mind as they teach behaviors, or they are teaching behaviors that are counterproductive to their goals. Because they aren’t clear on the future situation they want to create – they may have a general idea but not know the specifics – their training program can lead them astray. And lastly, without a plan and a good understanding of that plan, training sessions become inefficient – perhaps the handler works on something that maybe isn’t needed to reach the end goal, wasting time and effort. Or perhaps they are jumping the gun, working on things that they aren’t really ready for. Perhaps they struggle verbalizing their plan for each session with their trainer or director because they don’t have a clear understanding of it themselves. And perhaps they end their session feeling frustrated when it inevitably lacked direction.

Make a training plan. Stay on course. And when you wander off your map, use it to find your way back. Don’t be rigid in your tactics. Be prepared to pivot. And keep your future situation in mind when you hit a roadblock. As Larry says, “In practice, we often know the “what”. That night on the mountain, I knew what to do. I had the skills refined. I was confident in my strength and ability. But more often than not, in any journey, we tend to resort to old or comfortable habits. I took the “easy” way and thus, ventured off the map.”

And as a result, he, like many dog trainers without a plan, got lost. And he, like many dog trainers without a plan, nearly obliterated his chances at reaching his destination. It was only when he returned to the map, that he found his way to camp. 

Remember, knowledge (knowing how to train) is only part of the puzzle. But knowledge is useless without direction. “Having a map, and having a clear destination is a critical safety net when you look up and see that you are off course and unsatisfied with your current situation – it provides perspective on where you are, as well as where you need to go.” 

You may make it to your destination without a map, but your journey will be wrought with far more wrong turns along the way. Don’t hit the field without a plan. By simply taking a little time up front to get clear on your training program, you’ll avoid getting lost along the way, and your training will be far more productive and efficient now and in the long haul.  

We’ve put together an in-depth guide designed to help get you off on the right foot in creating a comprehensive training plan. The plan includes questions you can ask yourself to get clear on both your current situation and your destination, as well as questions you can ask to help get you back on track when you’ve wandered off your map.

Chelsey Montgomery