7 Things My Puppy Training Experience Taught Me About Developing Learning Experiences for Humans

7 Things My Puppy Training Experience Taught Me About Developing Learning Experiences for Humans

We were still evaluating breeders and weren’t expecting to take a puppy home that day, but in June of 2012, we became the proud parents of a little round ball of black fur we call Charger. She’s a German Shepherd–all black–who has really grown on this family in the last few months. She is such an amazing and smart little Shepherd (de-emphasis on “little”).

Charger presented our family with our first puppy-rearing experience. We had done the research and learned that a German Shepherd was exactly what our family needed, but also that German Shepherds are service dogs that require a lot of training and maintenance. With two little preschool girls in the home, we wanted to make sure that we did everything right.

As soon as we got home, we scheduled a puppy visit with a local trainer that specializes in German Shepherd training. And we immediately enrolled her in a dog training course after that. Dog training is something I have never done. It’s been an amazing experience. While I learned a lot about dogs, I also found lessons I could apply while developing learning experiences for humans.

1. You have to know how your student learns:

Dogs are pack animals. That means they engage in social interaction by greeting pack members enthusiastically with jumping, clawing and biting. Since our pack included young human children who lacked Charger’s thick puppy skin, we needed to teach her to greet us in a more controlled manner.

Pushing away, saying “DOWN,” expressing anger, or any other instinctual human responses were exactly the social interaction that Charger expected as a dog and these responses were seen as a reward which encouraged her to continue the dangerous behavior. Therefore, we had to greet her with no response. Standing still, folding our arms and ignoring our enthusiastic pack animal made her sit still and look for another way to get the attention she wanted.

Today, when someone exciting comes through the door, she runs over and lays down belly-up—an invitation for us to show our love and appreciation with a good belly rub.

The learning you develop should depend on how your audience learns. While you may be familiar with the reality that people have different learning styles, a more fundamental learning concept to understand is that our brains are wired to do whatever results in success. As achieving success becomes more difficult, people expend more effort looking for other ways to achieve success.

Understanding the learning process can help us look at our training program with a new eye. For example, tailoring learning content so that smaller successes are available throughout the program ensures that your audience will your achieve program’s objectives.

2. Punishment sets them back:

Historically, German Shepherds have been bred and trained for war and police work. The most common style of training used relies on punishing bad behavior. In the military, that can work because they are very consistent with their training. However, without consistency, a German Shepherd will challenge the training, after which, stronger punishment must be used to keep the dog under control.

But dogs are very loyal creatures. They seek to be an active and helpful member of the pack. They want to please us. Rewarding good behavior is far more effective than punishing undesirable behaviors.

Humans are not necessarily as loyal as dogs. They may not be interested in pleasing you, but we all respond to rewards. But in order to provide a meaningful reward, you have to know more about what motivates them.

3. You have to know what motivates:

Most of the time, Charger is motivated by food. But she can also be motivated by her desire to play ball or simply taking a step forward while she’s on a leash. If she can advance by pulling me with her leash, then she is rewarded by achieving her goal and the behavior is encouraged.

However, if she only gets to move forward when there’s slack in the leash, then walking closer to us–providing slack–becomes the behavior that gets her what she wants.

Humans have their own motivations and different rewards motivate us in different situations. Finding these motivations can be challenging, but are vital to a successful outcome.

4. You must have a goal in mind before you begin:

We weren’t allowed to use clickers in the beginner’s dog training class. A clicker is a dog-training device that makes a clicking sound much like popping a bottle cap. Used incorrectly and without a plan, it would quickly be rendered useless. But done with skill, it’s one of the most effective training tools for dogs.

To show us how dogs learn from clickers, our trainer put us in the dog’s proverbial “shoes.” We started by sending one person out of the room. Then the trainer gave us an a desired action for our “dog.” When our “dog” reentered, we used our clickers to signal our ostracized student each time he made progress towards the desired goal. The activity was quite similar to the children’s game of hot and cold.

Humans are quite a bit smarter than even the smartest dog, so make sure you have a clear goal in mind before you begin. They’ll pick up on it if you don’t.

5. You have to make it fun:

When the trainer noticed some of our commands confused Charger, she used a story to help us understand our dog’s confusion.

Years ago, one of the trainer’s canine students regressed after the owner cut back on follow-up training. When the owner decided to enter the dog in shows, the owner used a different trainer. Later on, our trainer happened upon the pair. Although the dog followed its owner’s commands, pleasing its master no longer brought the joy it once had.

The trainer patiently explained that while Charger is extremely smart and she has a powerful drive to please us, we had simply gotten too serious about her progress much like the story’s owner had.

I didn’t want that to happen to our little girl. And we should all be looking for ways to avoid that outcome. Don’t be afraid to make your learning fun. Once I attended a training on the legal services offered by my employer. As dry as the topic was, the development team managed to make it fun and yet serious by sharing tales of how horribly wrong things could go should we forego the use of their services.

6. The trainer’s technique is key to a successful learning experience:

The first thing Charger needed to learn was to focus herself. During our in-home puppy visit, the trainer taught her this by holding out a little treat that Charger desperately wanted. Charger tried to get it out of her hand. When that didn’t work, she sat down to figure out another way to get it. As she looked around for ideas, her eyes met the trainer’s eyes and the trainer said, “YES!” with excitement. This affirmation was followed by the treat. The next time, Charger figured it out much faster. By the third time, Charger knew exactly what to do.

The key to this focusing trick is to say YES when eye contact is made and THEN give the dog the treat. The word ‘yes’ signals that you just did what I wanted you to do and–just as importantly–that you are now released from doing what I wanted you to do. Our trainer explained that giving the treat as you say yes establishes that the word ‘yes’ means ‘food.’ As simple as this process sounds, my husband and I needed more practice than Charger to get it right!

Delivering learning content effectively is almost as important as the learning content itself. Take time to ensure that you, or whoever is delivering the learning content, is well rehearsed. At a minimum, detailed delivery notes for the facilitator are necessary for optimum impact.

7. Learning is incremental:

Our trainer asked us one day, “When is a good time to train your dog?”

“In the morning.” “Right before meal time.” “When you won’t be distracted.”

That’s what we all said, but the correct answer was “every time you have a spare 5 minutes.”

Oh. In other words this is an ongoing thing. One training day a week wasn’t going to create the habits that we needed Charger to learn. We had to keep working with her every day, throughout the day. The good news is that it only takes a few minutes a day (but we do it longer because everyone has fun doing it).

Unfortunately, most projects have limited time allotted for training. At Incremental Success, we believe that your learning program will be more effective and will have more long-term results if you spread the experience out in smaller increments over time.

In the time it takes for an audience to forget everything you taught them, you could focus on developing an extended learning experience that becomes more of a habit than it does a missed day of productivity.

Funny how much dogs can teach us about humans, huh?


In loving memory of our dog Charger who we lost unexpectedly August 2013.


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