Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Training Sessions

I am frequently asked by students how long a training session should be, what does a training session look like, how often should I train etc. 

My answer is almost always "it depends".  My general guidelines are that a training session with a puppy/young dog should be about 5 minutes for one exercise.  This may or may not include your set-up time for the exercise.  I don't let my puppy run amok when I'm setting up.  it is a good time to practice being tied up or crated or staying on a mat while I set-up.   While this may seem like hardly any time if you sent a timer for 5 minutes you will be amazed at how much you can do in that amount of time. 

With a puppy/young dog shorter sessions fit well with their shorter attention spans.  You don't want to go past what their brain capacity can handle.  Some puppies may even need a 2 minute limit for a training session if they are easily distracted.  The last thing I want to do with any dog is over-face them or stress them in a training session especially when teaching something new.

With Carmine I try to do a minimum of two 5 minute sessions each weekday.  If I get a third one in on a day we are doing really well.  On the weekends I may get one session in if I'm lucky when I'm away at a trial.  If we are on the road then we do a lot of "life training" where we work on walking around distractions and new sights and smells and that is the main focus of our training.

I have a couple of exercises that I like to take with me to new places because I don't need any equipment and they are about focus, control and drive.  The one is the game I call "Ready 1-2-3" which is about focus, self control and drive when called.  I can do the game anywhere and I can do it with the leash attached if I feel I need to do so. 

The other exercises I do with my puppy/young dog in different places for quick on the fly training sessions are to work on fast sits, fast downs and fast releases to a toy.  Lastly I try to continually work on loose leash walking wherever we go and I work on not losing their mind around people and dog activity.

When I go to agility trials with my puppies I do not want them erupting outside the agility ring.  I have seen over and over again that there is no correlation between dogs who are reactive to the motion of dogs and people and their success/drive in the agility ring.  Often fast, high drive dogs are the ones more likely to have high prey drive and demonstrate that outside the ring.  I have seen many dogs be reactive to dogs running agility and then have a low interest in doing agility themselves.  It is prey drive that is activitated when they see a dog running so all they may want to do is chase that dog.  Some dogs do get excited to have their turn out there once they understand the game but in the beginning the puppies don't know what the game is and all they see is a dog running.  Having adrenaline levels amped up before an agility run often correlates to low productive brain function inside the agility ring.  My personal experience with my own dogs, student dogs and friends dogs has showed this to be the case time and time again.  So I work on teaching my dogs how to function well outside an agility ring so that they do not "lose their minds."  Keeping a dog below "threshhold" for adrenaline levels is very important.  Once a dog goes "over the top" they need to be removed from the situation to get the excitement level back down.  It won't go down on its own by staying in the environment.  If the adrenaline level did go "over the top" studies have shown it can take up to TWO weeks away from stimulation for levels to return to normal.  If  dog is continually and habitually in that environment they run the risk of becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush and will be more difficult to train.  I've had a dog who was what I called an "adrenaline junkie" and while he was fast in agility he often lost his mind and could not be thoughtful on course and therefore had trouble collecting, had trouble maintaining contact criteria and stays at the start line.  So I work hard to teach my puppies early on how to behave around dogs in motion.  It is the number one thing and until I have focus around motion.  This has to be the highest priority in training if you want to have a performance dog.  The agility training is far easier and can be done any time but working on self control around dogs in motion is much harder for many dogs and handlers.

In terms of being a good dog person, having a dog outside the ring barking at dogs running agility is also inconsiderate to the dog running.  It produces an intimidating environment for the dog running agility or it can provoke a dog who is running to go after the barking dog for staring at them.  So there are many reasons having a dog overly aroused around agility is inappropriate behavior. 

So I like to take my dogs around distractions early on as puppies so I can see how they can function and start to build on their focus.  In the beginning it may only be a few seconds and gradually - over months - work up to minutes of focus around distractions.  Every dog will work at its own pace.  Since my dogs don't usually get to group classes I have to be more creative in setting up distractions for my dogs.  Generally group classes provide a lot of distraction for young dogs which is why it is a hard place to train new things to a young dog.  When I have a puppy/young dog who is easily distracted by their environment I do make a point of enrolling them in group classes so they will have more exposure to those distractions and that is the main focus of my training in those classes. I make sure my dog is not going to be disruptive in a group class - then it would be too much for my dog and the other dogs.  But if I just need to do short training sessions with the distractions and the dog just needs to learn more focus then it is fine.

Again short training sessions - less is more is the key to quality dog training!  My dogs don't get a lot of time in training but they get short high quality training sessions focused on only one or two skills.
Enjoy training your dog! 

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