Four Tips for Productive Training Sessions

Here’s a great video from Ted-Ed on how to get better at pretty much anything. You can apply this suggestions to your animal training and you should see faster improvement. A few key points that I think are especially important when you’re adding an animal into the mix:

      1. Break it up! The video talks about how professional athletes and musicians often practice skill sets throughout the day. The same should be true for training sessions with your dog. Most effective training only works on a new skill for less than 5 minutes, and often 1-2 minutes is even better! So do one session in the morning, another before you leave for work, and another in the evening. Or work on a particular game for 5 minutes, then switch it up and play a new one!
      2. Set yourself up for success. Make sure you and your pet are practicing the behaviors you want to see 80% more than the ones you don’t want to see. If you find yourself often frustrated with your pets behavior, it means they are practicing it a lot! And that’s strengthening those neural  pathways in their brains. Try to modify conditions or the environment to reduce the amount of times your pup does things you don’t enjoy. One example would be going on a hike on leash so they aren’t chasing other animals. You can then up the amount of repetitions of positive behavior by practicing self control and rewarding it around animals while on leash at a distance.
      3. Repetition is crucial! If you aren’t getting a high rate of reinforced behavior when working on a new task, think of ways to make the game easier. You want to be rewarding eight or nine of every ten trials, but you can get tens of trials into most training sessions if you’ve set things up for success.
      4. Reduce distractions. This is true for both you and your pet. Often, people have a hard time with dog training because they raise distractions too fast, before the dog even understands the behavior. Or, they spend their training time checking their phone. If you’re not having success, try to reduce these distractions and then introduce them back in slowly once the behavior is reliable, meaning happening on one cue 95% of the time. Remember, some distractions are harder than others. If you just can’t ignore your kid, try locking them in the dungeon (Just kidding!), or if your dog just has to say hi to other dogs, try working around on leash dogs at a distance they can focus on you.



Recall: Also Known as “COME”

Do me a favor and try this exercise with your dog real quick: Say their name and say the word “come” once. What did your dog do?

Your dog’s behavior in response to the cue gives you a lot of information about what to do next if you want to improve her recall (recall is what trainers think of as the behavior of coming to you when you call or signal).

If your dog came up and sat, you’re already on the right track and it’s probably time to take this behavior and add in distractions. If you found yourself repeating the word more than once, you need to back up and reteach. If your dog ran the other way to hide, or didn’t do anything, you probably need to rethink your own idea of what come is and means to your dog.

It’s also important to assess if recall is actually your problem. If you’re thinking, “jeeze, if my dog would just come when I call, he would bite a lot fewer” children, then recall really isn’t the issue. Recall training can only do so much, and if your dog is feeling unsafe, afraid, extremely over excited (we trainers call this over-aroused), or practicing predatory behaviors, even the best recall training is unlikely to work, especially without restraints. In these states, your dog may be physiologically incapable of hearing you, meaning the thinking part of their brain is not capable of making decisions. A metaphor might be helpful here. If you’ve ever been so afraid you were in a state of panic, you might remember feeling like a whole different person. For example, if you have a phobia of spiders, you might find yourself doing things you normally would never do if someone put a spider on you, and you’d be highly unlikely to respond to complicated instructions, such as doing calculus, while that spider was on you. Similar mechanisms are occurring in your dog’s brain when they are in the mental states I mentioned. So, to improve your dogs recall, you’ll need to focus on the underlying issues before you try and fail at working on recall. Here’s some great resources to get you started if that’s the case. If you’re not sure, try STEP ONE below. If you can’t play the first step in any given situation, and you’ve already played it in a low distraction place, it’s likely that your dog is feeling unsafe, afraid, extremely over excited, or practicing predatory behaviors. 

For fearful, reactive, hard to control dogs, check out these resources. The first video from Kikopup demonstrates how to use classical conditioning to change a scary experience and you can work similarly for anything your dog is nervous (it doesn’t have to be a washing machine):

Classical conditioning:

Handling tips:

Over-arousal (these tips with humping work for most arousal, you need to practice calmer behaviors and try to allow them to practive unwanted behaviors by anticipating and preventing them):


RECALL: what to do!

So, you want a great recall, eh? You want your dog to come when you call, eh? You want me to stop writing eh, eh? Fair enough. 

Check out this somewhat slapdash video I made on the six steps I take to build a strong recall. It’s meant to go along with the information below and is by no means a great video, or a stand alone guide, but I hope it helps to get the idea across!

Six Steps to Great Recall

THINGS TO REMEMBER: Keep recall training short and fun! Always use distance and restraints to your benefit when teaching the behavior. Great recall starts with fences, leashes, and long lines where dog can succeed! Use high value rewards: recall means hot dog and all the best things in life 80-95% of the time! Remember, some of the best REWARDS are getting to go outside, see friends, etc. Try to call your dog to do fun things far more often than from them!

STEP ONE: Reorienting Game

  • When your dog is looking at you, CLICK! and throw a treat away from you
  • Move away from your dog
  • When your dog looks at you, CLICK! and throw a treat away from you again
  • Play this game until your dog is looking back at you as soon as she eats the treat nine out of ten times

Some trainers call this step the “Name Game” . Leslie McDevitt has a great variation called “Whiplash Turns”. Here’s two good videos that demonstrate ways to play this game that are slightly different from my approach. I think it’s good to see the principles, and different ways of doing things so you have plenty of tools for these games.

The Name Game

Whiplash Turns

STEP TWO: Add a release cue

  • Now, play the same game, but say “GO SNIFF” before you toss the treat
  • CLICK! when they look back at you, and say “GO SNIFF!” then toss another treat
  • Play this game until you and your dog succeed nine out of ten times

Leslie refers to this part as “Take a break”.

In the video below, you can see her playing it with several dogs in addition to some other great games. Thanks again Leslie McDevitt!

STEP THREE: Add in catching

  • To start this game, CLICK! and throw a treat away from you and wait
  • Once your dog looks back at you, CLICK! and drop the treat at your feet
  • When your dog returns, CLICK! and feed five treats, one at a time
  • Once your dog has eaten all the treats, drop one between your feet, touch your dog’s collar in a way they feel comfortable with and say “GOT YOU”, then say “GO SNIFF!” and toss a treat
  • Once your dog looks back at you, CLICK! and drop the treat at your feet, AND REPEAT
  • Play this game until you and your dog succeed nine out of ten times

This game is just a variation on STAY. In the video below, Zac George walks us through how to teach a solid stay behavior at a door, but you can take parts of that to work on the attention and self control your pup needs to not immediately bound off when you go to catch them.

The Name Game

STEP FOUR: Add in the cue

If you or other people who handle your dog use “COME” already to call them when they AREN’T coming, pick a different cue. It could be “FROG,” it could be “HERE”. For our purposes, we’ll use the word “COME” as an example, but remember, it’s not the word that matters, it’s the history your dog associates with the word. We are naming the behavior at this step, so we do not expect the name to make the behavior happen until your pup has had the word paired with the behavior several times. 

  • To start, CLICK! and throw a treat
  • Head away and wait for your dog to look at you
  • When they turn back, CLICK!, and say “COME”, as they are coming toward you
  • Drop the treat at your feet and say “GOT YOU” as you touch their collar in a way they feel comfortable with
  • CLICK!, say “GO SNIFF!”, and then toss the treat away
  • Play this game until you and your dog succeed nine out of ten times
  • You can now TEST if the cue is paired by saying “COME” as your dog is heading away
  • If they turn and come back, the behavior is paired and you can move on
  • If they don’t return, go back to naming the behavior until you reach 9/10 successes

Here, the amazing Donna Hill elucidates us on pairing a behavior with a cue.

STEP FIVE: Add distractions

  • Introduce distractions like food and other dogs slowly and at a distance
  • At first, use distractions that your dog will not be able to get to because of a barrier or leash
  • Whenever possible, reward with higher level distractions for leaving lower level distractions (for example, reward with hot dog for coming away from their daily food, or reward come away from an old toy with a new one)
  • Use these principles: greater distance from a distraction increases the liklihood of successful recall; 9/10 successes means you can get closer to the distraction
  • Do not stack distractions, try to work on one at a time and only add more distractions once you have had success with each individual distraction independently
  • Play this game until your dog can successfully come away from and/or pass five different distractions

Emily Larlham, AKA Kikopup, made this great video on how to train your pup to come from distractions.

STEP SIX: Generalize

  • The key to generalization is reteaching
  • Once your dog has gotten to step five, reteach the game from step one in a several new environments with no distractions
    • This can be a friends fenced back yard, an empty parking lot on a long line or on leash, a park with a fence and no distractions, a tennis court, etc.
    • Reteach steps one through five in several new locations, being careful to add in the cues only once you are seeing the behavior
    • Each time you reteach, you should see your dog is able to get to get to a ratio of nine out of ten successes faster than the last time
  • Reteach the game on a long line on a short, no distraction hike
  • Reteach the game and add in other fun behaviors like going between your legs or fetching
  • In scenarios where you’ve had success, you can diminish rewards to things your dog enjoys, like pets, other fun tricks, playing with toys, or fetch
  • Be sure to practice recall when you don’t need it, for example on hikes when nothing is going on and you feel safe having them off leash, let them off and call them intermittently to put them on leash and then immediately release them
  • If your dog doesn’t come in a new environment, DO NOT punish them, DO NOT repeat the cue endlessly. Instead, identify the distraction and reteach the steps around it. Not coming when called is not bad behavior, it’s good information. The more real life distractions you teach the game around, the better your dog’s recall will become.

What NOT TO DO, or changing your own “bad” behaviors

What do you call your dog for? Do you call them when there’s an awesome piece of gross meat left on the ground? Or when there’s an incredible smell? Or to get away from things like scary bathtubs? I’m going to guess you don’t! In fact, I bet you routinely call your dog to do things they don’t want to do, or away from things they want.

Ohso says recall is fun when 95% of the time it leads to great games!

Here’s the problem: if even 50% of the time you’re calling your dog in order to try and take them from the things they’re interested in or to make them do something they don’t want to do, then you’re doing a really great job of teaching your dog that the word come is something they should run away from.

Imagine if I only ever called you to put spiders in your face or away from $100 bills blowing down the street. Would you come over? I hope not!

Don’t get me wrong. A well trained recall will bring your dog away from the things they want and towards the things they don’t, but that should be the bottom 5% of your recall work. And even then, at least 10% of the time they should get to go right back to what they want or away from the thing they don’t. Maybe even more like 30% or 80% of the time you should just send them right back.

An even better trick is to give them something better than what they left: Kujo came away from that car full of tasty people? Thanks Kujo, here’s a hot dog you good guy you.

And lastly, don’t be like Cat Power in this song and repeat, repeat, repeat your recall word, or you’re just teaching your dog to ignore you!

Here’s a great article on common mistakes people make:

OK, that’s enough negative information. Get out the treat bag and have some fun!

And just to re-emphasize…

Here’s all the separate steps that go into great recall. If you’re still having trouble with recall, think about which of these needs work.

More great recall game vids:

About Mackenzie

Howdy! My name is Mackenzie. I’ve trained dogs professionally using clicker training for over 10 years now and have CBCC. You might ask yourself why I do clicker training. Well, you might be surprised to know I started out using traditional methods like the kind you might see elsewhere. I was taught as kid to roll dogs on their backs and hold them down when they growled, to choke them when they pulled, and throw rocks at horses when they didn’t come to me. And even worse things than that. But as I progressed in my interest in training, I chose to make the switch to all positive reinforcement training, and for good reasons.

So, why do I do clicker training? If you watch one video about it, watch this one:

I have done many of those things to my dog friends, and my hope to help people learn to not them so that one day no dogs have to go through that. The other thing about clicker training is that it’s also how you get dolphins doing this:

It’s also how you get chickens to do this:

And it’s also how you get people to do things like this:

Clicker training is based on science. It evolved from the work of this guy, who you probably read about in your highschool introduction to psych:

B.F. Skinner developed the field of Behavioral Science by studying how stimuli like food and electric shock influenced future behavior. As a trainer, I like to think of positive reinforcement training as the art of behavioral science, as opposed to the straight study or application of it. Clickers are what good ol’ BF called secondary reinforcers, and they make for incredible behaviors and behavior chains, that are better remembered and enjoyable for animals to perform, as Shawna Karrasch demonstrates here:

Positive reinforcement training takes the findings of behavioral science and it uses them to help animals. It advocates for professional standards, but it also emphasizes communication, rather than bullying. Here, Dr. Karen Overall explains it succinctly:

So, why clicker training? Because clicker training:

  • Builds reliable, predictable behaviors and teaches owners how to assess environmental factors to understand whether or not their dog might perform
  • Solves problems traditional training can’t
  • We see healthier, less stressed out, happier dogs
  • Because positive methods focus on emphasizing the things owners and dogs want and enjoy, there is less stress, and less stress chemicals like cortisol which have been shown to cause epigenetic changes in genes that result in behavioral changes throughout life

I started out with traditional training methods. But through my work as a professional trainer and my study as a person interested in improving the lives of dogs I’ve found clicker training and positive reinforcement work better.

It’s as simple as that.

Oh yeah, it also gets dogs to do this:

And this (sorry, it’s hard to stop!):

Ready to learn some more about dog training with Mackenzie? Sign up for a consultation here and pay only what you choose!