What to do When the Training Lessons Stop
The Scene: You are sitting at home while your dog calmly sits by your side for some scratches. You just recently finished some training lessons with said pup. Your dog has been out of training for a few weeks now and you wonder to yourself "what now?".
Though you may be done with your training lessons (for now) it doesn't mean the training stops. You are likely going to be training your pup for many more months and years to come.
Here's the reality: You will always be training your dog.
Read that again. Anytime you want to take your dog somewhere new, meet someone new, experience something new, your training starts over. You likely won't need to start completely over, however you will need to follow the same training principles you did in the beginning. Unless you decide to keep your dog locked away for their entire life (which we sincerely hope is not the case) they will need to be reminded of what is acceptable (read: reinforced) and what is not. In order to get the same results each time, you'll need to continue the training each time.
Now, reinforcers matter here! When you begin training a dog you use primary reinforcers, read a previous blog of mine on this topic, and as time goes on we can begin to use conditioned reinforcers in their place. Examples of conditioned reinforcers are verbal praise like "good" and pets on the back. The thing to remember about conditioned reinforcers is that if they aren't followed by a primary reinforcer, then they lose their importance. Simply put, the dog no longer cares for it like they once did. This means that you need to use primary reinforcers such as food, water, attention, etc. to keep a behavior going well into the future.
As mentioned in the blog linked above, paying your dog for the behaviors you like is crucial to seeing them continue. I tell my students on our last lesson together, that if they want to see a behavior "proofed" or solidified then they need to provide these primary reinforcers at least 2-3 times a week with a few factors:
The number of times they ask for the behavior in a given week
The importance of the cue/behavior
Whether or not the behavior is driven by fear/frustration/anxiety
If your dog is being asked to perform a certain cue frequently then it's in your best interest to reward for this behavior more frequently as well.
If your dog needs to be reliable 100% of the time when being ask this cue/behavior then you will want to provide rewards every single time your dog performs it.
Finally, if the behavior being modified is/was driven by fear/frustration/anxiety then the alternative behaviors taught need to be reinforced each time or the dog will likely regress back to the behaviors they'd rather do which are generally the behaviors we dislike.
If you were using a clicker for training purposes, you'll want to begin phasing this out as your dog does well. It can take some time to phase the clicker out, and it should only be done once you are sure the behaviors have generalized well. This means that your dog can perform the behavior in many different environments and with different distractions happening. Each behavior should be evaluated on its own to know if it's time to phase the clicker out.
To phase the clicker out, simply don't click before rewarding. Begin to click only sometimes after the dog performs the behavior so that way there isn't always a click at the end of a behavior. You can also begin to use a marker work ("yes" is recommended) in place of the clicker.
Another important aspect of dog ownership is management. You and your trainer should have discussed any appropriate management techniques to help you achieve the results you want. Management is keeping the environment successful and safe for your dog so they don't perform the behavior(s) you don't want to see and/or to keep your dog away from danger. Examples of management are: putting your dog into a crate or behind a gate while the family eats dinner, and covering the windows with a translucent film so your dog doesn't bark at people outside. You are sometimes able to ease up on the management techniques as your dog learns through the training, however some management techniques are meant to be ways of life and will always need to take place. Management failure is possible and likely to happen throughout your dog's life. This is why discussing training options with your trainer and what to do when these sorts of things happen is important.
Now, just because you have finished training lessons doesn't mean you can't do more. All too often (in a good way) I have had students repeat classes they've been in already and/or sign up for more private lessons because they enjoy working with their dogs. This is an excellent thing to do! It gets your dog proper socialization, it gets you and your dog out of the house and/or the chance to interact with others, and trainers are always learning new ways to teach things (at least I do) meaning you continue to learn too. I once had a student take classes with her dog because it gave her a break from her husband and a much needed mommy + doggy date. Who says you can't do that too?
Finally, realize that your dog is a living, breathing creature who changes as they age. Behaviors you didn't anticipate or behaviors you don't like may arise later on in your dog's life, just as you finish training, or any time in between. Dogs are not robots and they shouldn't be thought of as such. Also learn to accept failure and patience. You aren't going to get results right away, and you aren't going to get perfect results each time. Humans go to school for at least 13 years before going out on their own, it's not unreasonable to expect your training to take months-years to solidify.
If you begin to notice a behavior that you haven't had professional help with and feel it would be best to work with a professional, then get back in contact with your trainer. The sooner the better! Most of the time, if a behavior doesn't have a lot of time to be reinforced then it can be modified and/or managed much easier than waiting to see if it will sort itself out. PRO TIP: Behaviors rarely sort themselves out. Seek training help from a certified, force-free trainer as soon as you can.
Remember that reinforcement must always take place in some form or other if you want to see the behaviors continue. You will need to determine whether or not the behavior in question needs a primary reinforcer every time or if conditioned reinforcers can be enough. Management must always be set in place to keep your dog successful. You also need to be okay with seeking additional help if a new behavior or old behavior worsen or affect your daily life. Have patience and enjoy the time spent with your loving companion!