How long each day should I spend training my dog? This question comes up often in all of my classes, and this week I thought about it a lot in regards to a deaf puppy I am working with in private sessions.
My advice to most dog owners is to work training into convenient times that you spend with your dog: use meal times for practicing “sit,” “wait,” and “come” when called, work on focus and loose leash walking on your daily strolls around the block or at the park, utilize time outs during play sessions, and practice “settle” and “down,” “stay” when you want to relax with your dog and watch TV.
Training should be practical, fun, and part of you and your dog’s daily life together.
No matter how short or extensive your training sessions may be, your dog is learning all the time. His training doesn’t end when you put away the leash or the treats. Your dog learns minute by minute what works and what doesn’t. He learns what is pleasant or fun, and also what is scary and should be avoided. This is known as passive training. For example, if the dog notices that scratching at the back door gets your attention and helps him get outside, he will do it more often.
He learns that when you open a certain cabinet, food comes out and he gets excited. Or the vacuum cleaner appears and he runs away. Passive training and association work hand in hand.
We can harness the power of passive training for all kinds of behavior. If a dog is afraid of her crate but we need her kennel trained, we can start by casually dropping pieces of high-value food into the back of the open crate and allow her to find them on her own. That progresses to feeding her entire meal, garnished with special treats, in the magical “food box” that is no longer a scary crate. The door stays wide open so she can vote with her feet whether to stay or leave until she is completely comfortable hanging out in the kennel.
We could hang a bell at the back door and let the dog discover on his own that ringing that bell, rather than scratching, gets the door opened for a romp outside. We can produce a favorite chew toy out of “nowhere” when we catch the dog hanging out on his bed instead of jumping in our laps on the couch.
Dogs that are taken to new places and surrounded by different people, other dogs and novel sights and sounds on a daily basis passively learn that these things are good, provided that these things don’t scare them initially. Passive training can be assisted by classical conditioning: if you think your dog might be nervous in a new environment, make sure to pair the experience with really special treats and avoid pressuring the dog to interact with things that make him uncomfortable.