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Building Your Client an Effective Pet Training Program

This article presents guidelines for dog training professionals to help them build training programs for their clients, including lesson and individual session plans


Spaniel giving trainer his paw
Preparation is essential: it is unprofessional for a trainer to arrive at a training appointment and realize they have forgotten an important piece of equipment or documentation © Can Stock Photo / hasalazars


By Niki Tudge

When we are building an effective training program for clients and their dogs, we usually start the process by completing a full client intake procedure and going to the client’s home and completing the informant interview. From here, we should then be ready to build our client a training program that includes the Training Road Map, Individual Lesson Plans, and Hands-on Sessions.

Let’s stop for a moment and just clarify, what does a successful informant interview look like?


Informant Interview

An informant interview is the initial and often only part of conducting a Functional Assessment. We drill down with the client on all the answers and anecdotal information they provided on our intake form during our first session together.

In many situations the information provided to us during this intake procedure is all we need to build our client their program.

But, in some cases it will not be enough, and we will need to collect more data on the underlying problem so we can effectively design a program that is both ethical and efficient. Efficient means it provides the road map to the best outcome for the client and their pet.

If needed, observational data can be collected either by the professional or the pet owner during the intake procedure for a more comprehensive understanding of how the behavior is being elicited/evoked. This should only take place if it is really necessary and if it helps us understand the complete antecedent package (the direct antecedent, the setting events, and the motivating operations).

In some situations, we may need to better understand the postcedent, the consequences that are maintaining the behavior.  Caution here as we shouldn’t be doing anything or asking a client to do anything that may elicit a dangerous or damaging scenario.

If, having completed the Direct Observation we still do not really understand what is triggering and/or maintaining the behavior then we may need to conduct a Functional Analysis of the dependent variables, but this requires a different level of knowledge and care procedures and is not covered here for these purposes.

Given that we are focused on building the training program, let’s assume that we have all of our key required deliverables having completed a full and thorough Functional Assessment with our client and we are now comfortable that we understand the contingencies involved.


Key Deliverables Required from the Functional Assessment:

  1. A description of the behavior problem using applied behavior analysis terminology, and a contingency statement showing the three- or two-term contingency.
    • Antecedent package
    • Behavior, tangible descriptions around intensity, duration, frequency and latency
    • Postcedent package
  2. A hypothesis of what is going on with a high rate of confidence.
  3. A goal statement or statements agreed on by all parties that are realistic and attainable.
  4. A program outline including:
  • Management tools and activities – this includes a plan for implementing management tools to prevent exposure to the problematic conditioned stimulus and to address any other safety concerns (if applicable).
  • Training Skills – we should know what we need to teach in terms of individual skills and any equipment needed to facilitate this.
  • Relationship Exercises – there should be a plan to address relationship-building activities if there is a deficit of trust from previous training and care practices. It is important the pet feels safe with all parties who will be involved in the program.
  • Behavior Change Protocols – if we are embarking on a full-blown behavior change program, we must make sure our contingency statement identifies the problematic antecedent and/or the postcedent so we can begin any desensitization and counterconditioning program in an effective and efficient manner.

So now we are going to focus on building:

  1. The Training Road Map – the high-level plan of the program, lessons and sessions that you can present to your client.
  2. The Training Lesson Plans – how many lessons do we think we need to plan for, and what will we cover in each lesson? How will we progressively teach the various skills, so they make the most sense in terms of meeting the client’s needs?
  3. The Lesson Session Plans – in each lesson we may have between three to five individual training sessions. What will these look like and how will we execute them? This is where the “On Task Skill Coaching” Program comes into full strength.

Note: This may appear to be a lot of work but if you are like me, then as you develop plans you keep them, and these can form templates for future use.


1.      The Training Road Map

The training road map should contain all the necessary elements required to build a training plan. These will be broken down into a lesson plan and then individual session plans, i.e., micro training sessions within each lesson.

They do not necessarily have to be in order of priority or have a structure, but they are the components we have determined as essential for the training program to be successful.

The required components include:

  • Specific training skills.
  • Management tools and activities.
  • Relationship-building exercises.
  • Counterconditioning elements.


Key Training Plan Objectives for the Road Map – Sample Behavior Problem: Leash Reactivity

Objective One – Prepare the dog and owner with the skills, knowledge, and equipment they need to safely go on walks (or alternative exercise) while avoiding, whenever possible, the problematic conditioned stimulus. This way physical exercise and mental enrichment are not compromised.

Objective Two – Reframe the canine-human bond by developing a more collegial, fun and trusting relationship. Introduce some fun and easy activities that can take place between the dog and owner, such as play and games that will develop a strong reinforcement history.

Teach the pet owner how they can connect with their pet through time spent together, fun play sessions and enrichment activities. Those who play together, stay together. These types of activities will also be very useful during any counterconditioning program to help maintain a relaxed and fun environment and approach.

Objective Three – Commence with a counterconditioning program the owner can competently work with in the absence of the trainer.

Objective Four – Develop the necessary training ability and knowledge to mastery level so the owner has the skills for life, and learning is fun for all concerned.

The top priority in this particular training plan is to develop the skills and tools needed to help the owner be able to take the dog for walks around the neighborhood. Leash walking skills are addressed first and supported by fun games and relationship-building activities.

These are the key objectives for the plan, and although it may run for 10 weeks or more, there are no guarantees. We can certainly talk to our clients about our road map and all the deliverables we need for success, but we cannot guarantee results. How quickly the training progresses will be based on the allocation and completion of homework, which is contingent on the client’s ability and time to work through the program elements.


2.      The Training Lesson Plan

The training plan is developed from the training road map and will highlight the order of priority in terms of what to address and when.

I have detailed a sample training plan below. In the plan I have provided an outline of priorities over a six-week period for instructional purposes. Note that there is a reason why the activities on the plan have been placed in a certain order for this specific case:

  1. The dog has leash reactivity problems with large men at a distance of 20 feet, moving or stationary, so the plan will incorporate systematic desensitization and counterconditioning.
  2. The dog has no current pet manners or trained leash behaviors. There are no behaviors currently under stimulus control (i.e., no sit, wait, down, walk nicely, etc.).
  3. The dog’s problematic behavior has been maintained through negative reinforcement. The dog’s operant behaviors of barking and lunging are elicited through fear, a conditioned emotional response. This behavior has worked for the dog, either because the stimulus perceived to be a threat has always removed itself from view, or the dog’s owner has removed the dog from the situation. Both consequences have resulted in removal of the aversive stimulus.
  4. The dog is only 9 months old and has no bite or fight history with other dogs. Indeed, no problems at all have been noted with other dogs.
  5. The dog has no bite history with people. A muzzle was introduced to the plan to provide mental and visual comfort for an overly anxious owner who currently has no leash handling skills.
  6. The owner stipulated emphatically in the goal statement that they not only wanted a dog that no longer reacted to strange men but also demonstrated a high degree of “obedience” around the home and on walks.


Six Week Training Plan


Teaching vs. Training

Upon examination of the literature discussing the topic of teaching versus training, it becomes apparent that teaching is theoretically oriented, whereas training has more of a practical application. Teaching facilitates new knowledge. Training, on the other hand, helps those who already have the knowledge to learn the tools and techniques required to apply that knowledge.

Teaching penetrates minds while training shapes habits and skills. Teachers provide information and knowledge while trainers facilitate learning. Or, as  H. Clay Trumbull (1890) states: “It has been said that the essence of teaching is causing another to know.” It may similarly be said that “the essence of training is causing another to do.” (Rao, 2008).

Training is an interactive activity that helps us to perform skills. It requires learning by doing and experiencing practical activities (Pollice, 2003). In my opinion, and stated across the relevant literature, training focuses on skills and narrows the focus, possibly over a shorter period of time.

Typically, we also associate training with repetitive learning until we achieve skill competency and the skill becomes second nature. A select review of the literature discussing teaching suggests that, in contrast to training, the search of, or transfer of knowledge is deeper and broader, and takes place over a longer period of time. We often say learning is a lifelong occupation.

Essentially, the goals associated with teaching and training are different. I am not suggesting these roles are mutually exclusive and it is important we balance our roles between teaching and transferring knowledge, and training and getting the job done. We must help and support our clients so they can help and support and facilitate their pets’ learning.

I conclude here that training is a subset of teaching. Below are some of the topics that we, within our scope as trainers and behavior consultants, touch on when teaching our clients. In the diagram, I have differentiated between topics that require skill training, or hands-on competency, and those that require teaching, or the transfer of knowledge. I think it is fair to say that the majority of these activities would be best taught alongside the skill training exercises.


Skill Training vs. Knowledge Teaching

Examples of Skill Training

To train = to form by instruction, to make prepared for a skill.

  • Obedience skills – sit, down, walk nicely, etc.
  • Luring skills – mechanics, timing.
  • Shaping skills – mechanics, timing.
  • Key management skills – crate training, etc.
  • Husbandry skills – grooming, ear cleaning.
  • Relationship-building skills – hand feeding.



Examples of Knowledge Teaching

To teach = to cause to know something, to guide the studies, impart the knowledge, to instruct.

  • Elements of safety, position, product knowledge, tools and equipment.
  • Overview of canine enrichment needs, exercise requirements, nurturing.
  • Canine communication.
  • The theory of skill acquisition, proofing, and generalization.
  • Theory of luring, fading of lure, transferal of cue, reinforcement theory.
  • Crate training criteria.



3.      The Individual Sessions

Now onto the actual individual sessions that make up each lesson.

There are normally 3-5 individual sessions within each lesson. A session is a concentrated hands-on skill session where we are working with the client to teach them how to perform a mechanical skill.  We separate these down as lessons can contain several short training sessions on separate and/or interrelated topics. It’s important for our clients that they understand where each session starts and finishes so the knowledge and skill training doesn’t all merge together, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and confused. We need to make sure we run these sessions as effectively as possible.

Most of our lessons are service products that we sell. They are generally one hour long or sold in increments of one hour. We may even package them so clients can buy them in groups, in which case they are usually prepaid and qualify for a small pre-pay discount, either for group training or individual sessions.

We will now look at a typical lesson plan taken from our Six- Week Training Plan.

Before we arrive at the client’s home, we need to have any important documents ready and make sure we have all the relevant training equipment.

  • Preparation is essential. It is very unprofessional to arrive at a training appointment and then realize we have forgotten the muzzle or handout we need to conduct the lesson effectively. However, if it does happen, we have one of two choices: a) omit that skill session from the lesson, or b) train the skill without all the necessary tools. Neither of these options is conducive to getting outstanding training results.
  • I firmly believe that, if training is to be professional and effective, it needs to be done correctly, and that means having all the necessary tools and documents on hand and prepared.

During our preparation we need to try to picture the actual training lesson and the planned sessions.

  • What are the individual training tasks we will focus on?
  • What will we say, and how will we explain the “how,” “what” and “why” of our training plan?
  • How will we demonstrate the actual skill?
  • What questions do we anticipate the client will ask and how will we answer them?
  • How will we handle any problems that may arise?

Finally, we must be sure we completely understand our material so we can competently demonstrate everything we expect the client to learn. We cannot just wing it when teaching a paying client. This would be highly irresponsible and very unprofessional.


Quick Preparation Checklist

  1. Do we have our training road map?
  2. Do we have our training plan?
  3. Have we prepared our individual lesson plan?
  4. How many skills sessions do we plan to execute in the lesson?
  5. Do we have our skill sessions planned? This means:
    1. Do we know what we will teach first and to what criteria?
    2. Have we developed our how, what and why?
    3. Do we have the necessary handouts to support knowledge transfer in conjunction with the skill training we have planned?
    4. Do we have all the correct equipment on hand?
    5. Are we dressed appropriately, i.e., do we look professional?


The individual lesson plan document below highlights an example of an individual lesson from the six-week training plan. The lesson is then dissected into two components:

  • What knowledge will we be transferring to the client?
  • What skills will we need to teach the client so they can train their dog competently?

In addition, we must identify what supporting documents are required for the knowledge transfer and what equipment is needed for the skill training. When training the skills what criteria do we hope to achieve? When we have multiple clients, it is important to record this information so we know, when we arrive for a lesson, where we left off, where the client stands, and where this lesson plans to take us.

Before we begin any individual training sessions within a lesson, we should be very clear about what exactly we will be training and to what criteria. Using a lesson plan helps us to be sure we have all the necessary support and homework documentation on hand to conduct it correctly.

Note that in the lesson plan there is a column for goal criteria. This will ensure we know the exact criteria each skill will be trained to in any individual lesson.



As discussed previously, we may have three to five individual skill training sessions within one lesson, and we need to prepare for each one of them. As can be seen in the chart there are multiple sessions in each single lesson.

Each lesson should be conducted in the same way. This entails working to the same method every time to ensure we guide students through the Experiential Learning Cycle. There is a formula for this, and I will now present an overview of the various steps involved, as well as what should be covered in each lesson.

The On Task Skill Coaching™ System has eight steps. The separate components of the individual session are as follows: (the 15-minute session)

  1. Open the session – The What, How & Why
  2. Show the finished skill – Generate motivation around the process and goal
  3. One-way demonstration – Engage and immerse the client into the training system and process through a demonstration
  4. Two-way demonstration – Engage the client to actively participate using involved inquiry
  5. Trainee performs the task – Hands-on experience with freedom to learn and experiment, supported by a positive coaching model
  6. Supervised student practice – Ensure proficiency is in place for homework competency
  7. Wrap up session – Congratulate, review and recap and inquire to ensure understanding
  8. Assign homework – that is feasible based on client skill and knowledge and attainable based on lifestyle and time constrictions.

As teachers and trainers, we have a fundamental obligation to ensure that our teaching systems work. Our role is not just as pet trainers but as people trainers. It is imperative to the success of our role that our students can not only grasp the knowledge we provide but can mechanically deliver the skill training in our absence, ensuring they reach the goals agreed on at the onset of the training program. In Part Two we will explore in more detail the “On Task Skill Coaching” component of this system and how to manage clients through the eight steps.



Pollice, G. (2003). Teaching versus Training. The Rational Edge Publication

Rao, M.S. (2008). Teaching versus Training

Trumbull, C.H. (1890). Hints on Child Training. Eugene, OR: Great Expectations Book Co.



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