Training Your Dog on the Fly

Seize everyday opportunities to train your dog.

Most dog owners realize that some behaviors are formally taught and some develop seemingly by accident. A dog taught to wave goodbye is a novelty; a dog that teaches itself to wave goodbye is a four-footed genius. In the absence of structured education, a pet’s mental machinery still adapts to the environment. And pet owners can take advantage of that by reinforcing unique, interesting behaviors.

First you need a quick signal that means “Yes, do that again.” One of the requirements of a “do that again” signal is that it must be quick. Long-winded phrases like “Oh, what a good puppy!” take too long to be able to identify a specific behavior. The most convenient signal for “on the fly” training is an abbreviation of the universal praise phrase, “Good dog!”

The “Do That Again” Signal
To make a proper “do that again” signal, shorten the phrase to the single word “good.” To teach your dog that the word “good” means “do that again,” say the word and offer a small treat. At this point, you are not looking for a specific behavior to reward. You are just teaching your dog that the word “good” means it is about to get a treat.

Do this about 20 times. Now wait an hour or so. Stash a jar of treats where you can reach them within two or three seconds. Casually watch your pet from the corner of your eye. When the animal is not paying attention, say the word “good” and then offer the treat. If your dog whirls around, looking for a treat, you know your training has paid off. The word “good” is ready to be used for training on the fly.

The next step is to start watching your dog closely. During the course of a day, a dog will engage in many behaviors, such as playing with toys, exploring the environment, sleeping and eating. If you look closely, you will see small variations in these behaviors and some one-of-kind behaviors that have never happened before. To turn these occurrences into controllable behaviors, it helps to view them in context.

Imagine that you offer your dog, Bently, a knotted rope toy. While playing with it, Bently shakes the toy in typical doglike fashion. During the act of “killing” the toy, he accidentally lets go and the toy sails into the air. Bently adroitly leaps and catches the toy. Gee, wouldn’t that be a neat trick! Now is the time to uncork your new tool.

At the instant Bently catches the toy, say “Good!” and watch what happens. Bently will stop dead in his tracks and look at you. It is as if he is thinking, “You mean I can get a treat forthat?” The answer is a resounding yes. Hop out of your seat and get one of your stashed treats. Take the two or three seconds necessary to walk to the treat jar and offer treat to your dog.

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