In order to reach success, progress through each of the dog training phases
There are a few dog training phases, and you must progress through each of them in order to reach success in your dog training, regardless of what you are training for.
The different phases form the blueprint of our whole dog training process. You can find different phases for basic dog obedience training, for more advanced dog training like search/rescue or advanced dog sports like Mondio ring, etc...The most common description of each of these dog training phases are:
- Learning phase
- Generalization phase
- Correction and Distraction phase
- Maintenance phase
Today more and more dog trainers are understanding how dogs actually learn and work. First of all, dogs see the world completely differently from us, humans. However, there are still many out there, dog trainers, handlers and owners alike, who don’t understand this concept.
For example, if you are just starting dog obedience training and you are training the “sit” command. Traditionally, you do it repeatedly in the same location and with the same posture (your dog sits right in front of you), and your dog will gain fluency, in fact he might get so good that as soon as you mention the word “sit” he slams his rear end down.
At this point you are sure that your dog understands the meaning of the command “sit”. But how sure are you? Try something different. Try to command your dog to sit while you have your back turned to him, or sideways, you will notice that either your dog will try to come around to the front of you in order to complete the command or that he ignores the command (what many may think is disobedience).
In the old training methods this would be classified as disobedience and it would immediately be followed by a correction. Wrong!!! Dogs learn through images. They take the whole snapshot of the environment, their posture, your posture and the action itself. To your dog, all of these factors combined make up the command “sit”. If you change anything in that image at the beginning of your dog obedience training, your dog will fail simply because the whole “picture” is no longer the same.
Dogs don’t rationalize or generalize like humans, so adding a correction is not fair or productive during this first dog training phase, as your dog actually hasn’t a clue as to why you are correcting him. Following this way will lead you to a path of using more and more physical force in order to get results.
Unfortunately this type of dog training has been practiced for decades. It is not quite correct and in most cases relies upon increased levels of corrections because the dog owners/ handlers have the wrong opinion or were misinformed that their dog is disobeying and therefore should be corrected for not generalizing and understanding the definition of the word used in the command.
This type of training is limiting for most dogs, and many dog owners end up relying on physical force in order for their dog to obey. In general, for these people, the more their dog is exposed to distractions or environmental influences, the more they have to apply corrections in order to get a response.
The truth is that you have to complete “x” number of repetitions, in different locations, under different distractions before your dog reaches the generalization point, which means that he actually understands that “down” (or any other)command is not relevant to the environment, but is a separate action for itself.
Before we start with the correct way of training, by progressing through the dog training phases, let’s cover the basic question as to when to start training and how long a session should be.
How long should a training session be?
At the beginning of dog training it is easy to inadvertently push beyond the dog’s capabilities therefore to avoid this, keep the sessions short. How short? That depends on your dog’s level of energy; level of motivation, etc. if you feel that you can’t get more than 2 minutes at a time in the beginning, than those two minutes are your starting point.
You can always increase the time down the road but remember that it is hard and in some cases impossible to try to motivate and ‘save’ a dog after he has been trained beyond his capabilities. The dog will quickly become frustrated and unwilling to work. Don’t fall into the trap thinking that you can push more just because your dog has a great food or toy drive and seems willing to work for it.
It is easy (and all too common) to hit the point in training at which your dog may get “sick of it” and no amount of rewards will motivate him from that point onward.
When to start training?
Dog training starts early, if you have your own litter then before eight weeks of age (you can learn more about this on the socializing your dog page), or if you get a dog from someone or somewhere else, then it starts from the day you bring your dog home, and will continue throughout your dog’s life. It’s as simple as that! How to proceed through that time frame is what is known as the different dog training phases.
Dog training phases step by step
There are many different opinions as to how many different dog training phases should exist, however, most people agree that most phases fall within the four listed above. In order to help you build your own training blueprint, I have also added in two pre-learning steps, as detailed below.
- Building a relationship
- Environmental stressors
- Learning phase
- Generalization phase
- Corrections & Distractions (working in different environments) phase
- Maintenance phase (Continuous training throughout your dog’s life)
Each of these levels of dog training phases is equally important and skipping one of them or going too fast through them will show up in your results. (Some may get only partial results while others end up with a complete fiasco).
The first pre- step of the dog training phases is the building a relationship and focus phase
I have explained this step in the building a relationship page of this website. This step continues throughout your dog’s life and there is not much point of performing any actual dog training if you haven’t first worked on this step, so please be sure to make this step a priority for you and your dog.
The second pre-step of the dog training phases is dealing with Environmental stressors
It is very important to discuss the environmental stress that is present in any form of dog training and in a dog’s daily life. First of all, environmental stress is present everywhere, even if 2 different locations/scenarios may look quite similar to us, they may produce a completely different outcome from our dog.
Every animal including us humans, have a unique perception of our environment and how to deal with the changes in it. It is not a question of will we will run into problems with environmental stress, it is just a question of when and what effect it will produce on our dog.
Dogs are pack animals therefore the environment will affect them differently in a few basic situations. For example: if a dog is a member of a dog pack, the size of that pack builds confidence, which dramatically changes a dog’s overall behavior to different situations. If the pack is made up of a larger number of dogs they will behave more “stable” and show less stress-related impact from the environment. The smaller a pack gets, the more things start to change.
If you observe a stray dog that is out for a longer period of time alone, he will tend to avoid everything, and will normally move into an area at a time when there are no activities going on and all is quiet. They tend to live as shadows. This is both a result of negative experiences, as well as a huge amount of stress produced by the environment.
Dogs have difficulties facing any life situation alone, as the pack way of life is one of the cores of their being.
This is one of the biggest factors as to why many dogs fail in some situations, both everyday situations and situations in dog competitions.
If there is no relative connection between a dog and handler/owner, or if your dog does not “trust” you, he will end up being affected by stress far more than if you have already managed to create a successful relationship (bond, partnership, pack, or however else you want to call it).
TIP: Step number one in dealing with the environmental stress is to go back to the basics, Building a relationship and focus. One of the rules in dog training is increasing in increments. The same rules apply when you are dealing with any environmental stress situations. If you hit a point that your dog is uncomfortable or you see that his performance is affected by the environment, go back one step in your training to the area/situations where your dog was comfortable, and then continue from that point. Forcing your dog will not get you anywhere. Always remember that you are dealing with an animal that has a totally different view of this world, and he is not capable of learning and handling situations like a human.
Even if you spend 6-8 weeks (or more) in the dog training phase of building a relationship with your dog instead of doing basic dog obedience training commands, and you reach the point at which your dog is confident with you and able to face a variety of different environments and situations, you can congratulate yourself... you have just completed 90% of your dog training.
If you have your dog’s active participation, motivation and focus, only then can you proceed with training your dog’s behaviors. Reaching that point is the signal from your dog that he is ready and willing to try new things with you.
If you haven’t reached this state, you are constantly fighting against your dog’s focus, environment, etc. and this will only end up frustrating both you and your dog. This would also be the easiest way to kill your dog’s motivation and willingness for work permanently, if you persist.
Dog training phase 1: the Learning phase
There are many questions about this phase; the most common is the issue of how long a dog needs to be in this phase and how we know if the learning phase is done. The answer is that it depends on the dog, handler/owner, task that is being performed and the situation (environment).
It takes roughly 30-60 (sometimes more) repetitions for our dog to learn simple commands. Once our dog knows and shows a fluency in their response (the dog is showing that he understands the verbal command by performing the asked action) we then move onto the next level.
There is also a certain level of energy required for training. You shouldn’t perform any type of training after your dog has just finished his meal or before your dog has had a chance to relieve himself. This will make him nervous or uncomfortable and remember that it is our goal to not attach anything negative to training.
If your dog is hyperactive, take out part of his energy before training to help avoid your dog from swinging towards frustration. If your dog is a normally active dog you can perform a short game (for a minute or two) in order to start him up and build motivation and engagement.
If you are dealing with a puppy, please check the socialization and puppy training portions of the website, as it is easy to over-train a puppy simply because they have a shorter span of focus, energy and they are very “fragile” at this time in their lives.
Luring and free shaping
When we talk about the learning phase in dog obedience training or any other dog training, we have to mention luring and free shaping (which I describe in greater detail on the Clicker training page). These are the two most common techniques used in most dog training scenarios.
I won’t be describing the compulsion dog training methods in as much detail, on this site, as they are much more complex and an inexperienced handler will do more damage than good. The fact is that there are not many people out there who truly understand how to correctly apply this type of training to begin with. There is no need to train your dog through compulsion techniques, there are better and less dangerous or damaging dog training techniques out there.
TIP: Many people make the mistake of performing a certain task in the identical way each time. For example, if you are training your dog the “sit” command, you might be facing your dog at all times, your dog will then “memorize” that whole action. Remember that dogs learn through the whole environmental picture. Your dog may perform perfectly once you are facing him, but if you turn sideways; your dog may fail to perform the required action. Not because he is disobeying but because he may have problems understanding and accepting the new picture. You need to practice this “sit” position with your dog by facing different directions, jumping around, being at different distances from your dog, etc... If your dog performs the sitting position with these light distractions, your dog connects the verbal command with the action that he needs to perform. Now he is ready to move to phase three.
Dog Training Phase 2: the Generalization phase
This dog training phase is actually a continuation of the learning phase in dog obedience training. After the initial step of learning is done, for example once the “down” command in an area that is familiar to our dog and with little to no environmental stress is complete and our dog is fluently responding to this command regardless of our body posture, distance, etc. we are then ready to start into the next phase, the generalization phase.
There are no rules set in stone when we talk about dog training therefore there are no time limits, or solid borders between each of the dog training phases. Exactly when the learning phase “ends” and the generalization phase ‘begins’ depends on many factors. These are just guidelines to help you know how to organize your dog training blueprint.
First, we will introduce our dog to a low level environment with a low level of distractions. If you’ve done the previous step correctly (environmental stressors), your dog will feel more confident and he will respond positively to the new environment. Now be ready for the fact that your dog may fail completely and that you may need to help him by luring him into the position just like you did at the beginning of your training, this is normal.
Correcting your dog at this stage is wrong since he is not disobeying; he is simply having trouble associating the new learned skills to a new “picture”. Applying corrections will only set him back in the training since he wouldn’t understand what he is getting corrected for and it will create confusion, kill the motivation to work and he may create superstitious behaviors (cross-conditioning) based on the moment that he received the punishment.
By changing to different scenarios/environments and levels of stress (increasing gradually) your dog is learning the most important thing in dog training and that is the generalization effect. He learns that actions like sit, down, etc. are not related to a specific environment or situation but that they are independent actions. Generalizing is a longer process and can sometimes take hundreds of repetitions in different environments. If the dog is too distracted by the environment it is better to take him to a different place with less distraction until he catches onto the generalization itself rather than correcting him.
Dog training phase 3: corrections and adding distractions phase
Adding distractions is inevitable in your life. You can have an agility world champion on your own course in your basement, but that same dog may completely fail in performance outside. This is the reason why you need to change environments and change distractions (the more the better). Your goal is for your dog to succeed in any situation therefore build the distractions in gradually (start from a greater distance and move closer towards the distraction, etc.) and control the scenarios and environments.
Once your dog “clues in” that the exercises he is performing are the actions themselves regardless of the environment, your body posture, or ay other factors, then you know that you are on the right track.
Corrections are the last new step introduced in the dog training phases, and they are also the last step that we will introduce in our dog training. However, there are different levels of corrections and different situations. Normally we try to avoid this step as much as possible, but in everyday life there will always be situations where our dog may show certain types of behaviors that will depend upon corrections for that behavior to be stopped, and not to reoccur.
Because corrections are a topic entirely for themselves, I have created a page on that subject. For more information about how to correctly apply corrections and when, please go to Dog Training Corrections.
Common mistakes in this dog training phase
The dog training phase of corrections and distractions will require the most patience, knowledge and participation as a dog handler/owner; it is also a more difficult level for your dog. There are many potential mistakes made during this dog training phase, so to help you avoid some of them, I will mention the most common ones:
- Moving too fast through the early steps of the dog training phases, such as building a relationship and focus and the learning phase, will result in failure down the road. Your dog will not be confident with you, and he will end up overwhelmed by the environmental stressors in such a way, that he will fail to perform the actions that he may not even have learned properly in the first place. Many dog owners (and unfortunately many dog trainers) incorrectly think of this as disobedience by the dog.
- Throwing your dog “into the fire”, which means throwing a dog into a higher level of distractions than he is ready for. In this case, these people are setting themselves, and their dogs, up for failure then often blaming their dogs for that. Please remember the pre-steps to the dog training phases, about building a relationship and environmental stressors, to help you avoid this mistake. You can also learn more about these steps on the building a relationship page of this website.
- Inappropriately adding corrections. Corrections are to be added only when a dog is completely comfortable with the environment and has passed all of the steps leading up to it, successfully. When we are dealing with a dog that successfully passed all the training steps mentioned above, and has performed hundreds of repetitions of the same action, and we are sure that he knows exactly what should be done, then if a dog doesn’t do what is asked, we can say that he is disobedient.
Disobedience in the dog training process is a normal part of it. Always keep in mind that whatever we ask of our dog is not natural for him, and some of our requirements and actions may go completely against his natural instincts. In the case of disobedience, a proper correction is to be applied.
Once again, there are many different components and ways to perform a correction in dog training. You can find out about corrections here on the How to apply a correction page of the website.
Dog Training Phase 4: the Maintenance phase
This dog training phase comes after the training of a particular exercise has completed each of the other dog training phases. Unfortunately, due in large part to the many dog obedience schools that give out “diplomas” upon completion, many dog owners get the wrong impression that once their dog obedience training is done that’s it; their dog is set for life.
The truth is very different. You will actually need to practice and exercise with your dog for the rest of his life. Why? Simply because anything that we are training our dogs isn’t natural for them therefore if not maintained it will “disappear” from their minds, very similar to us in some ways. Many of us can’t remember how to solve many of the mathematical tasks from high school, for example, not because of a lack of intelligence or because we never learned them, (after all we get diplomas attesting that we did, too) but simply because most of us don’t use them in our day to day lives. Compared to other skills and knowledge that we “practice and exercise” daily, these former ones become old and obsolete. The same applies to our dogs, if what we teach them is not “maintained”, it will also become obsolete to them, nothing more than a vague memory.
The dog training phase of maintenance is quite simply that, maintaining the skills and knowledge that both you and your dog have worked so hard to accomplish. This can be as simple as working through a few of the basic obedience commands spread throughout a walk, or “playing” together and using some of the skills you both learned along the way in your trainings. By maintaining the training that you and your dog have completed together, you are also strengthening the relationship that you have built, and as it was mentioned several times throughout this website, that is a key factor to all of your successes.
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