May 2023 Training Challenge: Practice an Old Skill in a New Situation

Happy May, everyone! 

I hope that the transition into the spring months has been smooth. 

The world is waking up again. Critters outside are more active and there are more sights, sounds, smells, and tastes out in the real world. As the sun comes out, more people are out with their pets taking strolls or playing in the yard. With longer days come more events, kids playing outside, and so much more activity. 

And for many of my clients, this is posing some… challenges. The quiet lull that winter weather provides us is ceasing, and the number of distractions or triggers is increasing. 

Our management plans need a bit of updating, and you may find yourself in need of some new skills, or old skills in new situations. 

So this month, we challenge you to practice an old skill in a new situation. 


Let’s Start With the Old Skill 

First, we need to identify what you’re going to practice! And, I’ll be honest, I kinda put you on the spot, so it’s okay to take some time to think about what you can practice. 

For my pups, I might pull out our nose-to-hand target, our go-to-bed, or our “eyes on me” cue. We’ve practiced all of those a lot! 

Practice the skill a few times in an easy environment for your pet. This is often with little to no distraction and with some wonderful treats. 


Bringing the Old into the New

Now, think about a way you can add something new to the situation or environment to add just a little bit of challenge. Now, remember, it’s important to start with what your pet CAN do, not what you want them to do, or what you think they should be able to do. We want to observe what they can already do and start there! From a solid foundation, we can then add small tweaks to help our pet to learn that, no matter what else is going on, 2+2=4. If you’re interested in learning more about how to add the *just right* amount of challenge, check out this week’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, Why Your Dog Training Isn’t Working.

So, because coming up with those small little changes can be challenging, here are some ideas to get you started:

You’ve practiced in the living room, what about the bathroom? Or the bedroom? Or the kitchen? 

You’ve practiced while you were standing, what about with you sitting? Or kneeling? Or lying? 

You’ve practiced facing your pet, what about with you facing away from your pet? 

You’ve practiced with all the windows closed, what about with a window open? Or the slider? 

You’ve practiced in your home, what about your yard? Or your car? Or the vet clinic?

You’ve practiced this behavior, what about your partner? Or your roommate? 

You’ve practiced with no toys out, what about with 1 toy? Or 2 toys? 

You’ve practiced with treats in your hand, what about with treats in a bag? Or your pocket? Or on the counter? 

You’ve practiced right next to your dog, what about 2 feet away? 4 feet away? In another room? 


The Value in Changing the Picture 

One of the skills we don’t spend enough time talking about, thinking about, or executing is generalizing. It is very common to spend a lot of time focusing on the acquisition and fluency stages of learning, but generalizing/proofing just isn’t really as sexy. When it is done smoothly and well, it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. But making small tweaks to help our pet learn that in all these different scenarios, I’m still asking for the same thing can pay off big in the long run. 

Consider the case of coming when called. Most of us really want a rock solid come when called in our pet. It can be a huge deal for both safety and convenience. So, when you take the time to gradually teach your pet that when you say “here!” it means “Come park yourself in front of me”, you can feel more confident that your dog has practiced in a variety of scenarios and situations.  It can help you to feel more comfortable adventuring, or just keep your cool in case your dog gets loose. It doesn’t matter if you are at home, in the yard, in the front drive, in the park, on a walk, at the vet… it all means “Come park yourself in front of me”. 


Now what? 

  • Identify what you want to practice! Learning and playing together can be beneficial for both you and your pet, so don’t spend too much time planning before getting to the doing! 
  • Start folding in small changes and challenges into the picture. Remember, you want to start with what your pet CAN do, not what you want them to do, or think that they should be able to do.