Training Better & Faster

Blog title "Training Better & Faster for all of us who don't have a lot of free time"
Wee Beasties trainer with black and white dog

Written by Rachel McGuire

Yesterday, I went into Wal-Mart and forgot what I went in for…and also left my shopping list sitting on my desk.


Did I get what I actually needed at Wal-Mart?

Nope! Didn’t even go to the right section of the store.

Did I come out of Wal-Mart empty handed?

I think we both know the answer to that question… 

Siamese cat looking at cardboard figures in a shopping cart

Now, Rachel, you might be thinking, how does this have anything to do with training my dog or cat or parrot?

It’s very simple, really!

I didn’t have a plan when I walked into the store, so I didn’t get what I wanted.

The same thing happens in pet training…if you don’t have a plan, you’re much less likely to get the results you’re looking for!

Thankfully, the remedy is simple! Set some goals, and then create plans to meet them!

I know. I know. If it were that simple, you’d have done it already, right?

Well, today, we’re going to talk about how to set pet training goals and make the plans we need to fulfill them, so if you’re already sweating imagining yourself sitting in front of a blank page, take a deep breath, and read on! (And don’t worry about the blank page! I’ve got a tool to help you at the end of the post!)

Goal Setting & Pet Training

You may have never written down a thing about training your dog, cat, parrot, or other pet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have goals. Think back to all those times you’ve thought or said:

“I wish my dog could/would…”

“I wish I could get my cat to…”

“Why won’t my parrot just…”

“I really need my rabbit to…”

Those are dreams, and as the popular wall quote goes “A dream written down becomes a goal” so let’s get them on paper!

The Dead Man’s Test

Where many people go wrong in goal setting for dog or other pet training is focusing on what they don’t want to happen.

“I wish my dog wouldn’t jump on me.”

“I wish I could get my cat to not jump on the table.”

“Why won’t my parrot just quit chewing the door frame?”

“I really need my rabbit to not knock over the trash can.”

But the thing is, we can’t train “not.” We can only train behaviors.

This is where the slightly morbid analogy “The Dead Man’s Test” comes in.

Basically, if a dead man can do it, it’s not a behavior and therefore can’t be trained. So…

Cemetery in forest backlit by moon

Can a dead man not jump on me?

Unless you have the misfortune of being an extra in Supernatural or The Walking Dead, yes, a dead man can handle not jumping on you.

Can a dead man not jump on the table? Yes (though see above…)

Can a dead man quit chewing the door frame?

Yes (I’ve never heard of zombies that like wood, have you?).

Can a dead man not knock over the trash can?

Yes (dead men are, after all, very polite and tidy).

All right, enough with the funny business, you’re thinking, I get it…but what do I do now?

I’m so glad you asked!


And Action!

If your wish didn’t pass The Dead Man Test, you’ll need to rethink it. I prompt my training clients with “What would you prefer your dog (cat, etc.) do instead of X?” or, for a brand new behavior “what would you like your dog or other pet to do in this situation?”

What would you prefer your dog do instead of jumping on you? Perhaps stand, or sit, or either of those things? Can a dead man stand or sit? No? Then that’s our goal!

What would you like your dog to do when you open the car door? Sit and wait for you to cue them to exit the car? Can a dead man sit and wait for a cue? No? Then that’s our goal!

Try running your own wants and wishes through The Dead Man Test and see what you come up with! (Hint: Your goal probably won’t contain the word “not” and will definitely include an action like sit, stand, go to a spot, chew on a toy, etc.)

Cue the Lights!

Um, so technically you want lights before action, but let’s just go with it for now, okay?

Once you’ve decided on the behavior/action you want to train, you’ll need to pick out what cue starts the behavior…just like how a starting gun cues the runners to start running in a race!

Spilled popcorn and gummy bears

A cue can be anything your pet can perceive through their senses, so anything they can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell can work as a cue! Cues that can be seen or heard are most common, but obviously those don’t work for blind or deaf animals. Experiment with different cues, but choose one that is easy for you to give and your pet to perceive. 

You also want to choose one that is different from any other cues you might have. For example, many dogs confuse the two behaviors “lay down” and “take a bow” because the common cues for those (in English anyway) are “down” and “bow.” Say those out loud and hear how similar they sound!


Now, since cues can be anything that can be perceived, your pet may have already chosen a cue, or you may have accidentally trained a different cue than what you planned on.

When trying to replace one behavior with another (as in the dog jumping up on you), you need to examine the situation closely. 

What happens right before your dog jumps on you? 

Think about everything that happens when you come home. You:

  • Park your car
  • Walk up the sidewalk
  • Climb the stairs/Walk across your porch
  • Unlock the door
  • Open the door
  • BOOM! Get jumped on.

In this case, opening the door could be the cue for the dog to jump on you. If your dog only jumps on you, seeing you might be the cue!

Sometimes, you may also accidentally train a different cue than what you planned.

If you lean forward before you say “sit” or give your hand gesture, the dog may ignore the word “sit” or the hand gesture, or they might start sitting when you lean forward! This is why I and other trainers encourage you to be still before and after giving a cue. The sequence I train is:

  1. Stand/sit still with your hands in your home position
  2. Give cue and return your hands to home
  3. Stand/sit still while waiting for the pet to do the action
  4. Click with your hands in your “home” position
  5. Reach into your treat bag and deliver the treat
  6. Return to standing/sitting with hands in home position

Your “home position” can be any comfortable body stance and location for your hands, as long as your hands are anchored and still in one location (except when giving a visual cue or delivering a treat). Having your hands anchored like this prevents you from moving your hands around and giving your pet another cue to focus on. Be sure to maintain whatever posture is comfortable for you while training and giving cues–ie, don’t lean further forward, backward, etc. because the change from your regular stance to leaning in any direction can also be perceived as a cue because animals are very sensitive to body language, including simply leaning into their space!

Dream Big!

Now it’s time to brainstorm your goals! Write down all the things you “wish” for or want/need to work on with your pet. I like to brainstorm goals based on different categories:

  • General manners
  • Husbandry (Grooming/Veterinary care)
  • Behavior concerns (anxiety, reactivity, etc.)
  • Fun stuff/Bonding activities
  • Competition (titles/sports)

You don’t need to have goals in all the categories, and you don’t even have to use the same categories if you don’t want!

picture of a planner on a desk next to a vase of flowers

Once you have your goals listed, rank them by priority. You can’t work on everything at once! For beginners and those that are a little nervous about training, I’d work on one goal at a time. Everyone else should have between one and three goals depending on what you’d like to do.

You should also write down the cue you would like to use so you can think about whether it’s similar to other cues and have plenty of time to practice it without your pet.

I’ve created a FREE training plan template to help you get started training your pet. If you’re following along with the blog, you can now fill in the top two boxes. In the next post, we’ll learn how to fill in the rest of the page!

Let me know below if you need help turning your dreams into goals!

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