As those of you that follow the Rewarding Behaviors blog know, I’ve been hard at work raising and socializing my Saint Bernard puppy Cuba. This is a wonderful and exciting experience for me, and he’s certainly teaching me a lot as he grows. Perhaps one of the most important lessons I’m learning from Cuba is that how you schedule your training sessions can make all the difference in how successful you are and how rapidly you see results.
I’ve realized that there is value in each of the following scheduling arrangements:
I believe that these schedules are largely sequential. Let’s talk about each of these options in more detail.
Training on your dog’s schedule
Did you know that dogs are crepuscular animals? This means that they are naturally most active early in the morning (dawn) and early in the evening (dusk).
You can use this information to your advantage. When working on high energy behaviors, like teaching a retrieve, practicing really fast recall responses, or running an agility course, morning and evenings are great practice times. On the flip side, with a relatively untrained dog, these times when your dog is naturally very active, raring to go with excitement and enthusiasm, are not generally the best time to practice relaxation behaviors like settling on a mat, stationary positions with duration (“stay”), or impulse control exercises like “leave it.”
Keep in mind that this is only for the initial stages of training a new behavior. Once your dog has a solid reinforcement history for the right behavior at the right time, you can start mixing up the schedule a bit.
Time for Compromise
Cuba and I have found the times for compromise are specifically related to behaviors like potty training and crate training.
As a trainer, I know that puppies frequently need to potty after:
I use this knowledge to my advantage and take Cuba out at these times, making sure to reinforce him for appropriate (outside) toileting behavior.
Aside from these times, I know that Cuba needs to go out approximately every three hours. If I haven’t noticed any of the precursors in that time span, I know it is time for me to take the initiative and take Cuba out, even if it means waking him from a snoozefest. Taking him out on my schedule, as well as on his schedule, prevents me from getting in the situation where I have a puppy who has to potty, whining in his crate to get out. I never want to reinforce crate vocalization, and I don’t want Cuba to have to eliminate in his crate, so taking him out for potty breaks on my schedule and his prevents me from being forced to put Cuba into a situation where the only options are reinforcing unwanted behavior (either whining in the crate, which gets reinforced by release from the crate, or toileting in the crate, which would be reinforced by relief from a full bladder).
Training on Your Schedule
First, you must establish reliability on your dog’s schedule. Then there is the transition period, when you are responsive to your dog’s schedule but make compromises as well, sometimes asking for the behavior on your schedule and reinforcing appropriate responses appropriately. Finally, you may begin training on your schedule – practicing “down – stay” when your dog is a little wild, or waking him from an afternoon slumber for a warm-up and a few runs on the agility course.
This applies to exercise as well!
Not only do these rules apply to training, but to exercise as well. Initially, you will want to exercise your dog on his schedule – even if it means getting up earlier than you’d like to get him out for a game of fetch or tug. At any stage in your dog’s life, you will get the most bang for your exercise buck if you exercise your dog when he naturally craves it. Once your dog is well-trained and understands that exercise is a regular and predictable part of the routine, you can begin varying your exercise schedule.
Right now, I am able to be very unpredictable with Mokie. She’s a five year old dog that is generally ready to do whatever I want, whenever I want it. I can ask for a settle behavior when she’s wild and feel confident that I’ll get the behavior. Cuba, as a baby (toddler?), needs more predictably, routine, and schedule. If I ask him for a settle behavior when he wants to chew, run, pee, or play, I’m only devaluing my cue and making the training environment frustrating, rather than exhilarating for him. In short, I would not be setting Cuba up for success by asking him to focus when everything in his evolution and little puppy brain is telling him it’s time to freak out and have a riotous, playful adventure.
The more you are able to train and exercise on your dog’s schedule initially, the faster you will see more reliable response and success from your puppy or adult dog as you progress through the training stages.
Until next week, happy training!