Don’t Overlook a Good Ending
Until about a year ago, I never gave much thought to how I ended my training sessions. After the last repetition, I would reward my dog, tell her she was smart and turn off the lights before going upstairs.
Then in at a dog training seminar, an instructor brought up how confusing it can be for our dogs when we suddenly disengage from them during training. Maybe a family member asks us a question so we turn around to talk to them and momentarily ignore the dog. Or we stop to reset a jump bar and walk away from them.
This got me thinking about how it could also be confusing for our dog when we end a training session. All of sudden the treats and toys are gone and we leave the training space.
As the human, we know that this will be the last repetition and we know that afterwards we’ll move onto training our other dog, eating lunch or leaving for work. But our dogs aren’t aware of this information. I imagine it to be similar to the feeling when someone abruptly ends a phone call with you – “Did they even say bye? Are they okay? Did I say something wrong?”
I have gathered some bits and pieces from various trainers and I now have an end-of-training protocol that I feel works well for my dogs and eliminates that abrupt stop.
Cut Off Cue
My in-person agility instructor encourages her students to have a “cut off” word that lets the dog know no more cues will be given, training is over and the dog is free to do what they want. I liked this idea and have found it useful in several situations (such as after a recall on an off leash walk to let the dog know they can go back to doing dog things). So I started using that to indicate the session had ended, as opposed to just walking away from the training space. My cue is “all done.”
But, often my dog is pretty high after doing some training and so I felt that having something to transition them from working to chilling in the house would be beneficial. I believe it was on a CogDog Radio podcast that Sarah Stremming shared she does a treat scatter at the end of a training session. As is common with Sarah’s ideas, I thought this was genius and I decided to implement it into my routine. I keep a container of lower value treats in a container in my training space so I can toss a small handful for my dog to sniff out and eat. This kind of foraging behavior is typically a calming activity for dogs so it works perfectly to bring the energy back down.
This idea is similar to the treat scatter, as it is also a calming behavior for dogs. Depending on what kind of treats I’m using, I’ll let my dog lick the treat container clean. So if I was using something like cut up chicken or omelet, they get to lick up all the last bits and pieces.
So currently, my end-of-training routine is to say “all done”, toss some cookies and put down any lickable containers for them while I tidy up the space.
You might be thinking that giving them a scatter of cookies and a yummy bowl to lick out is like rewarding them for doing nothing. Personally, I don’t worry too much about this. I give my dogs food outside of training everyday and they are still very eager workers who love their training time. In my view, giving them some free food is worth it to help them mentally and physically come down after the fun of training.
Why Does the Ending Matter?
For a sensitive dog, an abrupt ending to training could act as an aversive event and create some anxiety for them (like in my phone call example), and that’s the last feeling we want our dogs experiencing after they worked hard for us. And for the more workaholic type dogs, a thoughtful end-of-training protocol can help them wind down and minimize frustration (barking, jumping, etc.) or attempts to keep the session from ending (like offering more behaviors). Having an end-of-session protocol is a tool to communicate clearly with our dogs. It helps avoid any confusion as to whether or not reinforcement is available to be earned. And it can act as a bridge between training time and chill-around-the-house time.
To learn more about why clarity in training is so important, click here.
Do you have an end-of-training protocol? What ways have you found to end a training session that work well for your dog?