Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Keeping a Training Journal - How and Why

Training a dog can be as complex or as simple as one makes it.. Every dog is different and keeping that in mind it is important to note that very few training methods will work the same way with each and every dog and handler. A training journal is one method that in my experience DOES work all the time every time so long as the trainer/owner keeps up with it and does it honestly and in a somewhat standardized format.

A training journal is simply a way to keep record of training sessions you do with your dog both in a group class and on your own. It can be super basic or really advanced as far as the entries goes. I find simple works best for the novice trainer, though somebody working on more complex or advanced behaviors or who is working towards competing in shows may find more detailed journals helpful. For now we'll keep it simple. All you need is a couple sheets or paper and something to keep them in or even better a spiral notebook and a pen.

Firstly you may be wondering WHY you would want to keep a journal in the first place, so lets get that out of the way before we going on to the HOW of journaling. Keeping records of your training at home is amazingly useful in helping you to see your dog's progress through a training program and thus can be a major motivational tool. Without the journal you are less likely to notice some of those baby steps towards perfectly performed behaviors and may assume you are making no progress at all or that training is not working for some reason. With a journal you can easily chart improvements and see the real story on how well training is progressing. As useful as it is in motivation a training journal is even more useful in spotting patterns of behavior, be they good or bad, in your training sessions. For example if a student comes to me and tells me that her wonder pup is having trouble with a given behavior during their at home sessions I can ask her exactly how long the problem has been going on. One of two things usually happens at this point in the conversation Situation one would be the student shrugs and says something to the effect 'I dunno, a couple of days I guess" and because they have elected to ignore my request for them to keep a record of their sessions they can provide no further information to me on when it started and we cannot look back and see what may have caused it. This makes helping them more difficult (however, far from impossible), than it needed to be. The second situation is  much better. My student can pull out her training journal flip it open to Thursday of last week and tell me exactly when the problem started. From there we can discuss in further detail that training session and look over her notes and can often pin point the problem then and there and work to correct it. At the very least we can see the pattern emerging and can counter it and correct it in short order. A wonderful example of this is our young standard poodle Saleen. When Saleen was just 6 months or so old we were working hard on perfecting heel position. Saleen had a bad habit of lagging just slightly behind where she was supposed to be and being less than motivated to catch up. After trying several different ways to speed her up I turned to an old school training collar and gave her a couple of pops with it to see if that helped. It did not. Heeling got much worse and we ended up struggling for several days to try and motivate her before looking back in my records I was able to pinpoint the problem which had started with the collar correction I had given her. It freaked her out and made her shut down entirely, even though it was a very mild correction. For the remainder of the week I worked just on playing and having a good time and SURPRISE her heeling corrected itself very quickly and we began to make big improvements. (This is also an example of how forceful training methods do nothing to help build a strong bond/working relationship between you and your dog). At the next class I attended (yup, even pro trainers have to take their dog to classes for social skills and distraction training) the instructor noticed the improvements in Saleen's heeling. Of course I didn't feel the need to fess up and tell her how I had almost ruined the whole thing in one session lol.

Now that we know WHY we want to keep a journal let get to the HOW. It's really super easy. Whip out your pen and your notebook and jot down the date and the time of day (morning, noon, night). Make a note of where you are training and be specific. If I train at home I specify that I was in the front yard or in the kitchen for most of the session. I also make a note of what I am using for reward and motivation. Write down what you worked on and how well your dog did with the lesson. If you did sit, down, and stay write down how your dog responded to each cue. If you had problems with one of those behaviors make a note of it and make a note of what if anything you tried to do about it. Then make a few general notes such as whether or not your wonder pup was distracted by a car backfiring up the street or if they didn't like a new cookie or toy you tried out. Write down any questions that come up so you can remember to ask the trainer about them if you are taking a class. Keep a log of your class time too in the same way you do your at home training sessions. I also go one step further and make notes of any time I take my dog out in public in my training journals. This allows me to remember any unusual behavior they display or if they were frighten or nervous by a new experience. Keeping track of their reactions to public settings helps me to stop and head off any problems and I can deal with them in training.

Following is an example from Saleen's training journal from when we were very actively working her last year. These entries are 100% real from a real trainer and a real dog working through real behaviors.

June 1st - Group class at Pets Behave 6:00pm
Trained; Heel, Stay, Recall, and Settle
Heel- Lots of lagging
Stay - Good, no problems walked to end of 6 foot lead easily
Recall - Good no hesitation, fast
Responses to sit and down cues were good, very quick
General notes:
Very reactive and easily distracted. Wanted to look at everyone else. Not super motivated, heeling is slow. Needs to be more "up" Not as motivated by carrots and apples for treats. Need a higher vaule treat for class situations. 
Work on lagging during heeling, find a toy to play train with, find a magic motivator treat.

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