Training Outside of Training Sessions

If you’ve spent any time reading dog training blogs or have taken any classes you’ve probably heard something along the lines of:

“You’re always training.”

What we really mean by this statement is:

“Your pet is always learning.”

And, the more salient to this article statement is:

“Your pet is always learning, whether or not you intend to be teaching them the thing they’re learning.”

There are a lot of ways that we can talk about the above statement, but I want to focus this week on what that means for structured training sessions. I often hear people saying that they don’t have the time to do a structured training session within their day. I get it; oftentimes neither do I! But the great thing about our pet always learning is that we don’t always need to set up a training session in order to see results. Yes, there are plenty of things that we still need a structured training session for, but for household rules and day-to-day behavior we can get away with a lot of in-the-moment learning. 


An example

I was recently speaking with the members of our behavior consulting professional development group, Pro Campus, for a monthly training challenge (topics of which are different than the ones we do for y’all). The training challenge was about boundary training and I was giving them an example about Oso. 

The stairs leading to the side door (which lead to the yard) also lead down to our basement. It looks like this:


Obviously Oso is allowed to go down the first few stairs to go outside, but we don’t currently want him in our unfinished basement. As I told our Pro Campus members, I could have absolutely trained this behavior using regular boundary training. I could have set up structured training sessions and a baby gate. But, instead, we positioned ourselves so he could only go outside when he was on the stairs and if he found his way into the basement we immediately called him back up. It was lackadaisical. It was easy. It added zero extra time into our day. And it worked. 

The only time Oso will go into the basement now is if he’s running down the stairs after us without us realizing and the door closes before he gets outside. He has too much momentum to stop and will proceed down the rest of the stairs and come right back up. 

There was a day where there was a tornado warning and we had to coax him into the basement with us. We used to be diligent about leaving the door at the top of the stairs closed if he wasn’t going outside. We can now leave the door wide open and he won’t go down the stairs unless the outside door is open too. 


Why that worked

There are a few reasons why that method was successful. 

  1. We were incredibly consistent. My husband and I talked about the rules, what happens if he went into the basement, and how to position ourselves to prevent that from happening. We did the same thing, every day, multiple times per day, for many months. 
  2. There was very little opportunity for him to do the “wrong” behavior. Wrong is in quotes because the behavior in itself isn’t bad. He needed to go into the basement during the tornado warning. He’ll be welcome down there when it’s finished. It’s currently “wrong” because it’s dangerous while we’re working on things down there. Anyhoo. The door at the top of the stairs was closed at all times except when he was going out and we positioned ourselves so he couldn’t go into the basement. We had a management fail maybe 3 times total in the first few weeks after we moved in. 
  3. When he did go into the basement, it wasn’t reinforced. We immediately but politely asked him to come up to go outside and that is far more exciting than remaining down there. There’s nothing exciting there: no interesting smells, no food, nothing he enjoys. It wasn’t reinforcing to be down there and we didn’t make a big fuss out of it when we had a management fail. 
  4. Oso is respectful of barriers and space in general. I keep mentioning that we simply had to stand in the way so Oso wouldn’t go down the stairs. That works for him because he doesn’t push his way past barriers or us in general (and the stairs are quite narrow). Additionally, he has years of a solid “wait” cue under his belt. Another dog may have required more of a barrier, but we knew Oso wouldn’t because we know his behavior well. 
  5. We were patient. I mentioned above that we trained this behavior over many months, not weeks. Sure, it would have been faster if we did more strategic training sessions. We didn’t care about fast, though. We cared about convenience. 


What does this have to do with your pet learning all of the time?

The point of this now longer-than-anticipated example is to illustrate that you don’t have to be “training” in order to teach. Your pet is always learning and that means that you can teach behaviors as you go throughout your day instead of setting up a training session. Like I mentioned above, this can be a convenient way to affect behavior change, especially when it comes to day-to-day behaviors. 

However, when a trainer says, “Your pet is always learning” they usually say it with more of a negative connotation. This is because in order for us to use this to our advantage, we need to be very purposeful, consistent, and a step ahead of our pets. Our actions need to be intentional and thought-out ahead of time. All of that is easier said than done. 

Below are 8 tips to help you take more advantage of your pet always learning:

  1. Decide what behaviors you want to see more of and less of. This way you don’t have to stop and think about whether or not your pet is learning something you actually want them to learn. Discuss these behaviors with your household so everyone is on the same page. 
  2. Manage your environment. I mentioned above that a large part of why we were successful with Oso’s stair rules/behavior is because he had very little opportunity to perform the unwanted behavior. That means he had very little opportunity to learn how to perform the unwanted behavior better. 
  3. Know what’s actually reinforcing to your pet. Here’s a hint: if a behavior stays the same or increases, it’s being reinforced in some fashion. Period. End of story. That’s the literal definition of reinforcement. The hard thing is that only the individual gets to decide what’s reinforcing to them. I can’t tell Oso that he really enjoys hard pats on the head anymore than I can tell my husband that he enjoys Brussels sprouts. You don’t get to decide what someone’s preferences are (there are kind of caveats that are way beyond the scope of this article. Let’s just leave it at the original statement.) That means, if your dog is jumping up on you and you’re pushing them off and telling them “no” and they’re still doing it a month later, you’re reinforcing it. We need to be able to objectively observe behavior if we’re going to make the most out of this strategy. 
  4. Discuss the strategy ahead of time. As soon as Oso stepped on the first step towards the basement we were already calling him back up. As soon as he was heading down the first few stairs we were opening the door to go outside (hugely reinforcing to him). Because we discussed our strategy ahead of time (not just for this, but for a lot of his behaviors) we could react immediately, appropriately, and consistently. 
  5. Practice the strategy until it’s second nature. There will be times where the appropriate reaction is not your initial response. This can be frustrating and disheartening after the fact. If you find that it’s hard to perform the appropriate reaction immediately, practice! Practice without your pet. Think through the scenarios. Ask someone to role play it with you. Practice until it’s second nature. 
  6. Look at your pet’s past behavior to anticipate their future behavior. One of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior. We were pretty confident that our strategy for Oso’s stair rules/behavior would work because we knew what he was like at doors in general. We knew how he went down stairs. We knew what cues we had at our disposal to use. It was just a matter of arranging everything that we knew about his behavior into this new scenario. 
  7. When you mess up (which happens to the best of us), use it as a learning opportunity for next time. I mentioned we had 3 management failures before we figured out the best strategy. Those moments were learning opportunities for us so we could be one step ahead of him in the future (literally, in this case).
  8. Make sure you’re meeting the need. Behavior isn’t arbitrary. It fills a need. If you plan on changing a behavior that’s currently meeting a need, you will need to meet that need in another way. For example, if your dog is jumping up for attention then you need to meet their attention needs in another way (preferably before the jumping starts). This strategy worked well for Oso’s stair behavior because going into the basement didn’t particularly serve a function even when he did go down there. 


Now what?

  • Is there a day-to-day behavior you’d like to work on with your pet? Make a list and choose the best one to start with as a household. It’s usually easier to choose something that’s not based in fear or anxiety for this. 
  • Once you have the behavior you want to work on, observe it for a while. What happens before the behavior? How can you manage what happens before? What happens immediately after the behavior? How can you change what happens after? 
  • Use your observations to develop your strategy. Make sure to discuss it with everyone in the household and people who are regularly present in your pet’s life. 
  • Get started on your strategy and keep observing. Are you having management fails? Are you meeting the need in another way? How consistent is your household in following the strategy?
  • Tweak accordingly and be patient. Remember that we’re going for convenience, not speed. 
  • Have a trainer or behavior consultant help you. Coming up with an effective plan is sometimes the hardest part; let a professional do it for you if you’re struggling. We work with clients all over the world. Email us at [email protected] to schedule your first session. 


Happy training!