The Nike Motto: Just do it.

OK, so you want to be a great dog trainer. Believe it or not it starts with the most basic concepts. The problem is that most people don’t start at a foundation and then build on top of it. They start from a half-way point of hearsay from someone who is considered an expert, like me. As there is no shortage of experts the information is overwhelming and often contradictory. Eventually the person selects one or more experts and starts training.  As a result of depending on hearsay, the beginner assumes that their existing level of skill is complete because they have memorized all the rules of the expert. The problem is that the beginner can’t know if there are glitches in their education. By accepting information on faith they may have wide gaps in their knowledge – gaps of ignorance. Then, one day, a problem arises that requires a fundamental solution they don’t know. The most common way to side-step this is to create a complex solution based on existing knowledge that doesn’t really solve the problem. That is the norm.

If you happen to be that one-in-a-hundred trainer who passionately wishes to elevate your knowledge, understanding fundamental aspects of behavior is a requirement, not an option. Additionally, if you don’t have a passion for analyzing what you know and testing your beliefs you will fall short of your goal. In that spirit I offer you this project – cut a behavior in half.

Tools: Active dog with a good appetite. Treats. Clicker.
First off, if you choose not to use a clicker for this project, you can end it now. It means that you aren’t really interested enough to spend $1.50 to improve your knowledge. It also means that you think I added that requirement because I am a knee-jerk ideologue. So, get a clicker. Take a couple of light-weight training sessions and replace “good dog” with the click. You will be ready when your dog visibly startles when it hears the click.

Turn in a Circle:

Teaching a dog to turn in a circle is a simple matter of luring with some palatable treat. The process is thousands of years old. Simply guide the dog in a circle and click when the dog completes the 360°. Then wait two or three second before you start to move to present the treat. Repeat. Over a series of repetitions, only go part way with the lure. If the dog stops or doesn’t complete the circle, say “wrong” in a normal tone of voice, wait two or three seconds and start the next repetition. Continue until you are giving no arm movement to get the dog to go in a circle. For some of you this will be different than what you have done in the past. That’s a good thing.

Add a Cue or Not: Adding a cue at this stage doesn’t matter and a truly great trainer would know that. If you are not yet a great trainer this will confuse you as you likely flinch at the idea of getting a behavior with no cue. That’s another fundamental piece of information that will serve you well in the future. If it still bothers you, pretend the dog is deaf until you get to the next paragraph.

Now that the dog will turn in a complete circle as a unit of behavior you have a choice that will not affect the outcome of the project. You can add a cue or not. If you choose to add a cue then you are going to do it my way. If not, then you can skip this section.

  1. Wait for the dog to do a complete turn. You have already achieved this or you’re not ready to add a cue anyway. Click
    1. Click after the turn is completed
    2. Pause
    3. Offer the treat
    4. As the dog is eating the treat, give whatever signal you wish to use as the cue – like “turn around.”
    5. Repeat a minimum of 20 times.
  2. If the dog does any behavior other than “turn around” say ‘wrong’ and give no treat. Then give the cue.
  3. If the dog does not do the behavior correctly, say “wrong”, pause, and then give the cue.
  4. If you can’t get above 90% accuracy on this (meaning you are saying ‘wrong’ more than one in ten times) go back to training silently.


Cut the behavior in half:
Whether you have a cue to trigger the behavior or not, it’s time to get to the point.

  1. Get the dog to start the circle. Click at the half-way point when the dog is facing directly away from you. Repeat about 20 times.
  2. After your obligatory 20 reps, start saying “wrong” if the dog goes beyond the half-way point. Then start the behavior again. Do at least 20 more repetitions.
  3. If the dog slows down at any point in the training and you can’t do 20 repetitions, simply start up the next training session where you left off.

If you do this with the goal of watching how the dog’s behavior changes you will be rewarded in a number of ways. First, you will have a dog that has a cue that means “face the same way as me” which is a great behavior for teaching any kind of directed movement, agility competition or simply to learn how to play Frisbee. Second, you will once and for all realize that you need a unique signal that means “end of behavior”. Third, you will understand that using a clicker to mean “keep going” is stupid. Fourth, you will learn the most important lesson of all. Actually doing something gives you information that no amount of reading books, watching videos and going to seminars can give you. In fact, if you do those things but do not actually do the work you will never become a great trainer. One last point – this doesn’t cost you anything other than the commitment you should have in the first place. If this sounds abrasive consider it simply the result of three decades of working with trainers who didn’t have grit. If you are the exception, you can prove me wrong about you and thank me for the lesson.

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