How can you make sure things stay clear and crisp for your dog? Make sure your investment of time and money counts in the long term? Keep your dog getting better in their new skills, rather than watching their skills seem to mysteriously deteriorate?
My answer might surprise you. Because I’m not going to say “drill behaviors and commands,” though that can help depending on the execution of those drills. I’m also not going to say “consistency consistency consistency,” because while that is true and extremely important, that word alone is not very helpful to you. It’s not clear enough to guide you through every interaction with your dog.
So this is the answer:
HAVE A PLAN.
Know, and be able to see in your mind with total clarity, how each interaction, task, and activity with your dog should go.
For example, when you go for a walk, break the whole thing down:
What happens when I’m putting collars/leashes on my dog? How should it go?
Phase 1: Sit. Patient while I fit the gear. Remain seated while I straighten up. No jumping.
Phase 2: Approach the door. Sit at door. Remain seated while door opens. Cross threshold only when told “heel” or “free.” (Do I want to her my dog through the door? Or exit first, then release my dog through the door?)
Phase 3: Heel. Know where all the invisible lines of the heel position are. See them clearly. Dog should maintain position. Dog should turn promptly when I turn. Dog should sit when I stop. No nose on the ground. No marking. Changes of speed or direction should not surprise the dog. Distractions/competing motivators should not derail the dog. Dog should not relieve himself unless told “free” and given an explicit opportunity to do so.
See what I mean?
If you have a clear picture of what should happen, then if (or when) your dog deviates from that vision, you can see it easily and respond. When your dog embodies that vision, you know to reward enthusiastically!
This is maintenance training. Your dog WILL make mistakes. That’s because they are not robots (thank God). And those mistakes provide an opportunity to teach and remind. And your dog WILL succeed, presenting opportunity to reward. The more your dog succeeds, the more established those habits become. When they mess up, they receive clear feedback and remember.
Have a plan. Envision the parts of the whole. Pay attention to detail. And communicate that vision to your dog.