In this post, I’m going to walk you through exactly what we do here at Success Dogs to create a dog training game plan to solve any dog training problem. This is the same process that I use to create our online dog training programs or when I work with a dog one-on-one.
Before we dive in, you might be wondering what a game plan is. A game plan is our term for an outlined strategy to solve a particular problem or to teach a dog a particular skill.
Think of a sport: Coaches have to come up with a winning strategy before they step a foot onto the field. They have to create a plan that they believe will bring them to victory.
We approach dog training the same way—with an end result in mind. Then we create a training plan that adheres to our guiding principles.
Let’s get started!
MASTER STEP 1: THE BIG PROBLEM
The first thing that you need to do is identify what the big problem is. And by big problem, I mean whatever you want to solve with your dog.
Maybe it’s peeing on the carpet, not coming when called, or pulling on the leash. Whatever it is, you have to be clear about solving one specific problem.
Oftentimes when a dog owner asks me to help train their dog, the owner will tell me how their dog has many problems and will want me to create a training plan to solve all of them. And I have to tell the owner that it’s better to focus on solving one problem at a time than to try tackling four or five problems and end up becoming overwhelmed and frustrated.
So right now, think about one specific problem with your dog, and dedicate the remainder of this guide to solving it.
To help you understand how I go about creating a training game plan, I will go through the process as if I’m working with a dog that pulls on the leash. I recently worked with a dog that had this problem, so it’s fresh in my mind.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Write down one problem with your dog that you are dedicated to solving.
MASTER STEP 2: YOUR INSPIRING VISION
Once you know exactly which problem you want to change, it’s time to move on to the next step, which is to create an inspiring vision.
This is what you want your dog to become, or how you would like it to be if your dog didn’t have the particular problem. Really think about this. The clearer you are about what it is that you want, the more likely you will be to attain it.
It’s not enough to go from “my dog is digging in the backyard” to “I want my dog to not dig in the backyard.” That isn’t going to motivate anybody, and to be totally honest with you, you’re going to need to take some action to solve your dog’s problem. There’s just no way around that.
You need to create an inspiring vision so you are pulled forward toward change rather than having to force yourself to take action.
I’ve been to dozens of self-help seminars, including all of Tony Robbins’ seminars, and what they all have in common is that you have to create in your mind a clear picture of what you want—something that emotionally inspires you.
So think about your vision and add emotion to it. How would you feel if your dog never had this problem again? How much stress would that eliminate? How much happier would you be? And how would your relationship with your dog grow as a result? Would you feel closer to your dog? Would you enjoy your dog’s company more?
Step into this vision and feel like it’s happening today. How do you feel?
ASSIGNMENT: Write down in your own words a vision of your dog that inspires you.
MASTER STEP 3: CLOSING THE GAP
When you think about the problem you have with your dog and your inspiring vision, there’s an obvious gap between the two. This stage is about figuring out ways to close this gap.
First, let’s analyze the problem in a little bit more depth. The more you know about it, the easier it’s going to be to craft your training game plan.
Ask yourself the following three questions:
#1: When does this problem occur?
#2: What triggers the problem to occur?
#3: Is there more than one trigger?
Your answers to these questions will give you a great deal of clarity. For example, when I answered them for a dog that was pulling on the leash, I figured out that she would pull mainly when she wanted to get to something, whether that was a leaf blowing, grass on the ground, or an exciting smell coming from an object. She didn’t really “pull all the time,” as her owner described the behavior to me.
From those answers, you should be able to come up with a list of one or two focus areas that you need to work on with your dog.
For example, if the dog lunges at a blowing leaf, I need to develop the dog’s self-control skills—that’s one focus area. And if the dog strains at the end of the leash, I need to build that dog’s attention skills—that’s a second focus area.
You always want to think in terms of improving your dog’s particular skill or ability. This will keep you from falling into the punishment trap, in which you punish your dog for not doing what you want.
ASSIGNMENT: Write down one or two focus areas that you’ll commit to improving.
MASTER STEP 4: CRAFTING YOUR TRAINING PLAN
Do you see the magic in what we’ve done so far? Instead of having one giant and overwhelming problem that you’re trying to solve, you can instead focus solely on one or two areas. This completely changes the way that you’re going to go about training.
In this stage, the objective is to create action steps that you can implement with your dog on a daily basis. You’ll need to take each of your focus areas and brainstorm ways to improve them, while making sure that they are both achievable and incremental.
What I mean is that you must always set your dog up for success, and each step should build upon the previous one so that the focus area gradually improves.
To give you an example, here are my lists of action items for both areas of focus:
- Ignore a dog treat in my hand (indoors)
- Ignore a dog treat on the floor (indoors)
- Ignore human food on the table (indoors)
- Ignore human food on the floor (indoors)
- Ignore a whole bag of popcorn on the floor (indoors)
- Ignore a rock on the ground (outside)
- Ignore a paper cup on the ground (outside)
- Ignore an opened bag of chips on the ground (outside)
- Ignore a leaf on the ground (outside)
- Ignore a blowing leaf on the ground (outside)
- Touch my hand (indoors)
- Touch my hand at my side (indoors)
- Touch my hand while walking (indoors)
- Touch my hand while turning directions (indoors)
- Touch my hand while ignoring a dog treat on the floor (indoors)
- Touch my hand (outside)
- Touch my hand while walking (outside)
- Touch my hand while walking on the grass (outside)
- Touch my hand while ignoring a paper cup on the ground (outside)
- Touch my hand while ignoring a blowing leaf (outside)
As you can see, some of these action items from both focus areas overlap. And that’s okay, but can you see how the focus is on developing the skill rather than on stopping the problem?
ASSIGNMENT: Write at least ten action items for each focus area. Don’t try to make this perfect—just brainstorm, and you can always revise the list later.
MASTER STEP 5: IMPLEMENTATION
Once you’ve created your training plan, the only thing left to do is to implement it with your dog.
From my experience in training dogs, there’s nothing like the power of scheduling. I know that this isn’t attractive, but if you write down on your calendar which days you’re committed to training your dog and for how long, you’ll be much more likely to follow through.
I know that you’re busy. You work long hours, and you really don’t feel like training your dog after a long and busy day at work. I get it. But what if you only committed to implementing this training plan for a week, two weeks, or a month? That’s a very small fraction of your dog’s life and could make a huge difference.
Do you remember your inspiring vision? This is what’s going to motivate you to take action and take the time to train your dog.
How often and how long you should train your dog is totally dependent on what the problem is and how much time you have. I highly recommend keeping your training sessions short (about fifteen to twenty minutes)—shorter if you are working on an intricate behavior.
The minimum that you should train your dog is once a day. You won’t get the results that you want if you skip days or train your dog only once a week. And if you want even faster results, you can train several times per day, say in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
ASSIGNMENT: Schedule your next three training sessions with your dog. They can happen all during one day or be spread out over three days.
Once you implement the training plan with your dog, you will notice results. And if these results are not exactly what you’re looking for, that’s okay. You may have to change something in your training plan.
This is exactly what I do with every dog that I work with. First, I implement the training plan that I created. If the action item inside the training plan doesn’t work, I simply go back to the drawing board and make a change. I then try again, and do this over and over until I succeed.
This is the magic formula for dog training success.
This is the exact process that I use to train any dog, regardless of the problem. And now, you can use it with your own dog.
If you would like to see exactly how I worked with the dog that pulled on the leash, I recorded all of my training sessions and created a course called The Walk in Harmony Game Plan. Inside, you can see exactly which skills I developed and how, as well as all of the different action items that I implemented to get what her owner wanted, a dog that walked nicely on a loose leash.