Think back to a project that you were assigned at work or at school. Can you think of one? Was your assignment vague or was it clear? Did it have buzzwords in your objectives like “improve customer experience” or “enhance employee engagement”? Did you go into the project fully confident that you could be successful?

Were you one of the truly lucky ones to have had a supervisor/manager/professor who was a very clear communicator? I can tell you that from my own experience of over 20 years in the corporate world working in the field of business process improvement, that vagueness was pretty much rule of the land. I can also tell you that as someone who tends towards anxiety naturally, this can be really stressful!

Guess what? We can extrapolate this to how we communicate with our dogs. Although many of our dogs are positively brilliant (ahem, BRAVA!!) and can seem to read all of our micro-movements, they really are not adept at mind reading. And as much as it would be extremely convenient, none of our dogs have ever read the rulebook for our sport. They don’t know what those soccer dots are surrounding the search area and they certainly have no idea that this is even a timed event. Your dog only knows what you have communicated.

The more clear your communication to your dog, the less anxiety your dog will feel about the unknown.

Communication helps your dog to understand how to be successful. Communication in the form of criteria, gives your dog a roadmap to reinforcement. That roadmap makes the task predictable and eliminates guessing. Clear criteria eliminates vagueness. Appropriate criteria is achievable. When you consider all of that, it becomes glaringly obvious that if we want our canine partner to work confidently, we need to set achievable criteria in a way that the dog understands how to be successful and believes that being successful is very much a possibility.

Clear criteria helps the dog to learn how to be successful and earn reinforcement.
Clear criteria helps the dog to learn how to be successful and earn reinforcement.

Let’s talk about a few rules of thumb…

1.) Make sure that your criteria is achievable given your dog’s current skill level

This means that your dog should be able to be successful within what they can currently do. For instance, if your dog is very novice, expecting them to give you a perfect alert behavior in a highly distracting environment might not be achievable!

2.) Make sure that you are clear in how you communicate to your dog when your dog is correct

Training with markers can be extremely helpful here. If you do train with markers, try to make sure that your marker is crisp and recognizable and that you are not combining it with movement. If you say “Yes, Good dog” at the same time as moving towards your dog while reaching in your pocket, your dog may have to guess about what actually produced the reward.

3.) Increases in your criteria need to be incremental

For instance, if you have never required any duration at source and then expect to “hold your dog to criteria” and all of a sudden ask for duration, your dog will have no idea what you want and will get frustrated.

4.) Be consistent in your “rules”

If you sometimes reinforce lower criteria and sometimes maintain higher criteria, have a reason behind your decisions. Arbitrary rules create dogs who experiment and push boundaries at best or give up and quit at worst.

5.) Be fair in your selection of your criteria

Remember that your dog is an individual. If you have a dog that stresses down for instance, trying to hold your dog to a strict level of difficult criteria could be highly demotivating. Some criteria will take more energy, physical or mental, than other criteria. Make sure it makes sense!

Challenge your training plan!

I would like to invite you all to write down and be SPECIFIC about your criteria for whatever it is that you are currently training and compare it to the rules of thumb. Ask yourself if you are being CLEAR and CREATING CONFIDENCE.