SMART Goals & Pet Training

Two dogs with party hats at new year party
Wee Beasties trainer with black and white dog

Written by Rachel McGuire

Happy National Train Your Dog Month!

Every January, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers hosts this virtual, month-long event to encourage everyone to train their dogs! It’s not just for trainers. It’s great for owners too. You’ll find some neat tip videos on their site, and I’ll be doing a weekly post with tips to help you this month in addition to some tips and videos on Facebook and Instagram.


Two dogs at New year party; Pet training is a good resolution!

Goal Setting

The first thing I’d like to talk about is goal setting! (This post will be great for your personal resolutions too, so keep reading!)

Do we really need to set goals to train our dog, cat, or other pet?

Short answer? Yes!

If you want to get anywhere with your training besides “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sitsitsit!” you need to set goals.

The good news?

Pet training goals are easy!

There’s no existential reasoning or five year planning going on. All you need to do is pick out the behaviors you want your pet to have, and then create goals to train them. So how do we do that?

Brainstorming Goals

I like to start my resolution-making by brainstorming a big list. We can do the same thing with pet training. Remember, the sky is the limit with brainstorming. We can refine things later! With training, I like to break things out into a few topics that I can focus on to help me get started. You don’t have to fill in every topic, just the ones you think you’d like to work on. If you have multiple pets, you may want to do a separate session for each one, or you might do them all at once. I’ve listed a few sample ideas with the topics to get your brain going.


  • Behavior at home: Barking at knock on door/doorbell; Jumping on me when I come inside; Cat scratching furniture
  • Behavior on walks/outside: Pulls on leash; Barks/lunges at other dogs
  • Behavior at the vet: Afraid of the vet—have to practically carry inside
  • Behavior at the groomer/during grooming: Afraid to have feet handled; Afraid of the bath tub
  • Behavior with other people in the home: Won’t listen to anyone but me
  • Behavior with other animals in the home: Cats not getting along
  • Activities to do together: Go to an off-leash beach together; Bring with me for lunch on patios; Get our trick title; Play more often

As you can see, your goals don’t always have to be about fixing a problem! You can and should have fun ideas too.

Next up, I prioritize my list of ideas. What do I absolutely have to have? What would be really good to have? What isn’t as pressing? I can’t tell you how to do this part because everyone has different priorities. A chihuahua owner might not care much about leash pulling, even though it would be nice if Paco didn’t do it, but a Saint Bernard owner would probably put that at the top of their list. Think about your pet and your circumstances, and decide from there!

You may have noticed that I haven’t called our list “goals” yet—that’s because they’re not! The ideas we came up with are very broad, but we can break them down into goals. Some, possibly most, of your ideas might need multiple goals to be accomplished and that’s okay! Don’t be afraid of multiple steps. Just take it one at a time!

Start SMART!

Now what? How do we make our ideas into goals?

Well, we all want to be smart, right?

And no one wants to waste time!

So we need to set SMART goals!

You’ve probably heard of the SMART acronym before. It gets tossed around a lot this time of year, and probably every time you mention making a goal these days. Let’s see how it applies to pet training!

We’ll start with one of the sample ideas from above: “Play more often.”

Let’s go through our acronym!

Specific: “Play” and “more often” are both a little vague, so we’ll start by making them more specific. What will we play? How often is “more”? We might say “I will play tug with my dog every week.”

Nice! Next up…

Measurable: How long and how often are easy things to measure. Above, we said “every week,” which is measurable, but we can make it more specific and say “three times a week” if we want, or even “ten minutes a day three times a week.” You can also use “at least,” “up to,” “at most,” etc. here.

The point about being measurable is that you should be able to look at your goal and say a definite “yes” or “no” to the question “Did I meet this goal today/this week?”

Attainable: Is three times a week something you can do? Can your dog even play tug? Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic goals—if you only have time to play twice a week, and your dog is toothless and arthritic and not much interested in playing tug, then this isn’t a good goal for you. Go back and think about it some more if you hit a snag here.

Relevant: Does your plan for your goal actually meet your goal? For example, if we want to play more often, then teaching your dog to let them brush your teeth isn’t a good goal.

Timely: This is where we add one more part to our goal—a sense of urgency! Without a deadline, a goal doesn’t have much push to it, so we make one to hold us accountable. For our goal, we can say something like “by March 1st” or later in the year if you need more time to build up to your goal.

So let’s say our final goal is: “I will play tug with my dog for at least ten minutes a day, three times a week by March 1st.”

Great job! That is something we can check off on our calendars easily each day we complete it and the “at least ten minutes a day” not only tells us when it’s okay to call it complete for the day, it also gives us the option to play longer if our dog is into it!

What about one of our multi-step ideas? Let’s try: “Jumping on me when I come in the door.”

Let’s turn that into a goal by asking ourselves what we want our dog to do. Don’t bother saying “not jump on me” because we can’t train “not,” and it can also be a lot of things! Is he barking at you? Pulling your pant leg? Running circles around you?

“Okay, okay,” you growl. “I want my dog to sit and wait to be petted.”

Excellent! Sitting and waiting are things we can train. We might break that down into two goals:

  1. Sit when I come in the door.
  2. Wait to be petted.

Let’s get SMART!

  • Specific: I will train my dog to sit in a specific spot when the door opens.
  • Measurable: I will train my dog for at least two minutes a day, five days a week to sit in a specific spot when the door opens.
  • Attainable: My dog can sit. (If your dog doesn’t know how to sit on cue, you might want to back up and make that one of your goals.)
  • Relevant: My dog can’t jump on me if he’s sitting down.
  • Timely: I will train my dog for two minutes a day, five days a week to sit sit in a specific spot when the door opens by February 1st.

Now the “wait” part of our goal.

  • Specific: I will train my dog to “wait” or remain in a sit until I put my things down and pet him.
  • Measurable: I will train my dog for at least two minutes a day, five days a week to “wait” or remain in a sit until I put my things down and pet him.
  • Attainable: My dog can learn to wait.
  • Relevant: I need my dog to wait so that I can put my things down and have my hands free to greet him.
  • Timely: I will train my dog for at least two minutes a day, five days a week to “wait” or remain in a sit until I put my things down and pet him by April 1st.

Way to go! You’ve walked through how to make a single step goal, and a multi-step goal!

Your Turn

It’s time to set some of your own now! When making training goals, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Short training sessions are best—you can get away with just two minutes a session if you want—Try not to go over 5 to 10 minutes.
  • You can also “time” sessions by the number of treats—count out ten to twenty treats, and when they’re gone, you’re done!
  • Keep your treats small, so you can get lots of practice in during your session (and so your pet doesn’t get sick!).
  • Work on one thing at a time each session.
  • Be flexible with your plan. Your pet may be more willing to work at one session than another, so plan for some off days (like when we said “five days a week”—that gives us some wiggle room if the pet or trainer aren’t feeling it that day!).
  • It’s okay to quit a session. If either of you are feeling icky or just don’t want to do it or you get frustrated, just stop for the day. Try to end cheerfully on a happy note and go do something fun instead!

Download the free template to set some goals of your own, and don’t forget to subscribe to get notified about next week’s post!

If you’d like one-on-one help reaching your pet training or behavior goals, please contact me!

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