How much effort are you putting into forming training plans for your 4-legged clients? Are you putting that same effort into the plans for the 2-legged ones? What can you do to start changing how you teach? Keep reading for my take.

1. Manipulate the Environment

This is the first thing we do when we want to modify a dog's behavior, and it's the starting point for my agility students, too. Remove the distractions from the training session:

  • the dog is not helping your student learn the front cross footwork. Removing the dog helps your student focus on their mechanics. It also saves the dog from learning bad habits for developing frustrated feelings about training.
  • the obstacles typically aren't helping your student learn either. If your student has a learning history with how to interact with a specific obstacle (perhaps looking at the obstacle vs the dog's line), removing the obstacle prevents the behavior from happening and gives you the opportunity to build the behavior you're looking for. If you want the student to watch the line, put a line on the ground for them to watch.
  • the speed of it all. Go at the learner's pace. A pace in which they don't have to think so carefully about their movements. A pace that the student can access the answer easily within their learning history.

2. Split. Split. Split.

Break things down into the smallest possible pieces for your students. It should feel easy to:

  • explain the wanted behavior
  • offer the wanted behavior
  • repeat the wanted behavior
  • give specific feedback on the wanted behavior

3. Stop Explaining Things

If your exercise requires a very wordy lecture on how to do it right and the 27 things that can go wrong, it's not split finely enough. Your explanations should be brief and focus on behavior. Learners are in a vulnerable place and sometimes nervous about learning something new. They won't remember a lecture in that moment. They will only remember how it felt to be taught by you.

  • try to format your instructions so that the last thing you say to them before they start training is what they SHOULD do.
  • brief, clear instructions that they can repeat back to you before they begin
    • bonus! have your student repeat the instructions to you before they begin; did they receive the message you were trying to give them?
  • leave lengthy explanations for before or after working time

4. Focus on What Went Right

This is pretty straight forward, but not always easy. What are you choosing to focus on when giving feedback to your students?

  • Try formatting your feedback in ways that tells them about what went RIGHT
  • If you need to make adjustments to something, try saying it in a way that produces the correct imagery in their head. i.e “next time, use your dog-side leg to step towards the take-off point”. There's no need to bring up what was wrong to get them to to focus on the correct answer.
  • Many students are conditioned to soften the blow by starting first “I know I did “x” wrong”. Reframe their negative reactions into positive ones. i.e “you're right! The use of your out-side leg is a stop sign, and that's why your dog stopped before the jump! That's such a great example of how dogs naturally respond to your cues!”

5. Have a Plan

Another simple piece of advice. Know what you're going to be focusing on that day. When we making training plans for our dogs, we have clear cue objectives and goals for that training session. Set your classes/lessons up the exact same way for the humans.

  • Today we are focusing on “x” sets the expectation for the whole class. This keeps students on task, and helps eliminate being pulled in another direction to focus on what the student wants to do vs what you've planned for the class.
  • This can relieve pressure from students. “Oh good. We're focusing on discrimination today. That gives me another week to focus on my weave entry homework!”
  • It gives you the ability to build a curriculum around what your students need. Focusing on a specific theme or objective each week gives you the ability to evaluate where your students are at and target the following lessons on other skills they may need improvement in.


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