Opportunistic dog training

Opportunistic Dog Training

Many of us think of dog training as something we do in a class, in the local village hall.

Or as something that is confined to designated periods of time at home, or in the garden.

And indeed, these training sessions are important.

Dogs are always learning

But in actual fact, dog training isn’t confined to the time slots we choose, it’s going on all the time.

Dogs learn from the consequences of their behaviour.   Any behaviour.

If you put your paw in your water bowl, it gets wet.  Poke the cat too often and he’ll scratch your nose.  Jump up at the kind lady next door and she gives you a cuddle.  Bark at the postman when he puts the letters through the door and he goes away.Some of the things your dog learns teach him cause and effect, in a helpful way.

If you don’t want a wet nose or paw, keep them out of your bowl.  If you come when you are called, you get a biscuit. If you don’t want a sore nose, its best not to poke cats.

Some of the things your dog learns teach him cause and effect in a bad way.  If you fancy a cuddle jump up at people, if you bark at people they go away.

Of course the latter is a case of false association.  It isn’t the dog barking that makes the postman or passersby go away, they weren’t stopping for a chat anyway.  But because they do go away, it reinforces the dog’s tendency to bark.

This is how bad habits can so easily get started.

On the bright side, many of these constant daily opportunities for learning are really useful – let’s have a look at some examples

Learning opportunities

Your dog is young, and his recall is still a bit shaky

You have just had breakfast and you are in a rush, you are not going to have time for a training session before work.

Your dog is standing on the back doorstep waiting to come in from the garden.

Should you

A) Leave him outside until you have cleared away the breakfast dishes, or

B) Let him in before he starts whining?

The answer is actually neither of these.

You have the perfect opportunity here.

An opportunity to strengthen and confirm that all important recall command.

You have a dog that you know actually wants to travel in a specific direction.  In this case,  through your door and towards you.

The right answer is:

C) Grab a bit of leftover bacon fat from one of those breakfast plates,  or  warm a lump of cheese from the fridge in your hand and then give your recall command.  He’ll hear you through the door.

Once you have given the command,  you can open the door so that the dog can come through it, and shove the treat straight into his mouth as he passes through the doorway.

Out on a walk with the dog with a shaky recall?  Does he ‘check in’ on you occasionally?

Take him out when he is hungry,  take something delicious with you (roast chicken for example), and every time he ‘checks in’ give him a whistle as he approaches and chuck him some of your juicy treats.

What you are doing here is taking advantage of an opportunity in which you can accurately predict your dog’s behaviour,  and provide an appropriate cue and consequence

Sit as a default behaviour

We can use the back door again to teach a different behaviour.  This time with the dog that is indoors and wants to go out.

We can wait for the dog to sit,  before we open the door for him to pass through.

Sit is actually a great way for a dog to say ‘please’ – an excellent ‘default behaviour’ for the dog to learn, and every day you will have dozens of opportunities to reinforce this and other great behaviours.

Don’t waste them!

Don’t waste your training opportunities

Every time your dog wants something from you,  every time you give him anything at all,  wait for him to sit first.  Or to look at your face first,  or anything else that you think would be a useful default behaviour for this kind of situation.

Sit is good because a dog can’t be jumping or spinning about when he is sitting.

Make the things your dog wants to do dependent on a behaviour that you like.   And don’t waste opportunities for putting scraps of treats to good use.

Wasting food?

Many of us waste opportunities to reward our dogs by feeding them their daily food ration in a single meal, or dropping scraps into their bowl without a thought.

There is no need to do this.

If you are teaching your dog new skills, or struggling to get your dog’s attention and focus, use his food ration at every opportunity

Feed him for sitting to go out, feed him for coming in when you call, feed him for going into his crate, feed him for lying quietly, for bringing you his ball, for looking into your eyes.

Attention is precious.  Reward your dog often for every drop.  Studies have shown that dogs rewarded more frequently are more obedient than dogs rewarded less frequently.  Making use of these golden opportunities really does work.

How about you

What opportunities do you sometimes use to get in a little extra training?  Share your tips with other readers in the comments box below.


This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on August 5, 2014

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joanna Hopkins August 6, 2014 at 9:20 pm

I absolutely Total Recall, it’s been a total godsend in helping me with my young Labrador.


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