With another year nearly behind us, it’s time to start looking forward to the new year. The question is simple: how can we better ourselves as Service Dog handlers, owners, trainers, puppy raisers? Setting Service Dog training goals offers an easy place to begin.
Good goals provide a concrete endpoint so you know when you’ve succeeded. They give you a way to focus your efforts and work efficiently and productively towards what you want. Knowing how to set goals can be tricky, though! Many experts recommend utilizing the SMART goals system. SMART goals are:
Basically, SMART goals consist of concrete steps you take within a certain time period to achieve something specific that’s quantifiable. An example of a SMART goal for dog training would be “Obtain my Service Dog’s Canine Good Citizen certification by Valentine’s Day.” An example of a goal that does not adhere to the SMART protocol is “Train my Service Dog more.” More than what? What counts as training? Does a single repetition of sit-down-stand count, or does it have to be several minutes to matter? Now, if you said, “I’d like to do 90 seconds of obedience training twice per day at least 4 days a week,” now you’re talking!
Goals like that allow you to know whether or not you’ve achieved them — there’s no guessing and thusly, less stress. It’s important to keep the “achievable” part of the SMART goals process in mind. Set goals you can feasibly reach so that you can succeed. When you’ve achieved the first set of goals, set new ones. It’s far easier to start a habit of training for 3 minutes a day than it is for 30 minutes twice per day! Be kind to yourself, your dog, and your capabilities.
Step One: Decide What You Want Your Goals to Be
Before you can set goals, you need to know what you want to work on. Ideally, your goals involve behaviors or skills you’d like to build or improve in your dog or in your handling. Not all goals have to directly involve training your dog. Maybe you’d like to read a chapter per week of a book on canine behavior or maybe you’d like to take an online course on canine massage. By all means, though, set goals for direct interactions with your dog, too! Consider including goals for exercise and enrichment, too. Chances are both you and your dog could benefit from both!
Science says people meet goals that are written down, spoken aloud, and shared far more regularly than those they keep to themselves. Writing your goals down increases the likelihood of success. Furthermore, it offers a great way to log and track progress. (You are logging and tracking your Service Dog’s training, right?)
If your goals are process oriented, create milestones to the main goal. As an example, if you wanted to get a Companion Dog title on your Service Dog by June, your milestones might include things like “Master the CD heeling pattern by February 1st. Distraction proof a 1 minute sit stay by March 1st. Distraction proof a 3 minute down stay by April 1st. Get a stand on cue with a 15 second stay by May 1st.” Make sure the milestones follow the SMART protocol — make them specific, keep them time bound, and make them relevant to the end result.
Step Three: Plan Out Your Service Dog Training Goals
Now that you’ve figured out what your Service Dog training goals are going to be, plan out how you’re going to achieve them! Some goals, like “Work on loose leash walking for 15 minutes during our daily walk” make this simple. Others, like “Teach Fido a pivot in heel position” take some doing. Do you know about pivots and why they’re useful? If not, find a place to learn about them and set a milestone up for when you’ll finish learning. Do you know how to begin teaching pivots? Do you have the props, if any, that you’ll need?
Planning is fun but the magic is in the doing! Get out there and get busy. Avoid overwhelming yourself during January trying to stick to dozens of new patterns. Work towards one or two things at a time. Build a habit of small successes and you’ll see big changes over time. Most of all, have fun bonding and growing with your Service Dog! Good luck as you move into the New Year and may you meet all your goals!