Homework isn’t just for kids. As with anything we learn, there needs to be practice, practice, and more practice to nail down a skill. The same is true for our dogs. Trainers can (almost) always tell when a dog and handler team comes to class once a week but aren’t putting the practice time in between classes.
But doing homework isn’t just about impressing your trainer, it’s setting your dog up for successful learning. Most trainers will explicitly give you skills to work on with your dog before the next class. If your trainer doesn’t give specific homework, you can also take notes during class and what activities you and your dog are struggling with. These are ideal skills to practice as “homework” with your dog during the week.
Why Does Your Dog Need Homework?
Taking a class once a week can be fun and a good opportunity to learn, but unfortunately, it’s not enough time for dogs to solidify and master most skills. Think of class time as the opportunity to introduce new skills and behaviors with the support of your trainer—while the real work starts at home. Your trainer will be able to introduce how to teach new behavior and provide tips and support as your dog is learning.
Then, during the week between classes, it’s time for you to practice those skills introduced in class. By brushing up on tricks and behaviors throughout the week, you and your dog will be ready to return to class prepared and ready to learn new skills.
Taking your dog to class is as much about teaching you as it is about teaching your dog. There is a saying amongst dog people that when a dog makes a mistake in training that it’s usually on the handler. Obviously, this is a slight exaggeration, but you might be surprised how often it was timing, position, or body posture that led to your dog going off course, missing the cue, or otherwise making a “mistake” while training or competing.
Our dogs watch us closely, so an important part of doing homework from your dog’s class is very likely as much for you as it is for your dog. By working with your dog during the week between classes, you’ll likely see an improvement in your comfort and skills with handling, which will translate to your dog’s skills.
Develop A Training Routine Between Classes
Trainers know that everyone is busy, so most won’t give you and your dog homework that is going to be difficult to fit into your schedule. But regardless of if you’re taking your new dog to puppy training or you’re in an advanced competition class, you’ll want to develop a regular training routine. Whenever possible, it’s best to incorporate your dog’s homework into the daily routines you and your dog already have. Try to identify times during the day that you can work on skills from class—even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
One strategy to get training time daily is to incorporate training into your walks or mealtime. If you feed your dog kibble, it works well to use that as a lower-value treat while training. Attaching your dog’s homework time to mealtime is also an easy way to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten as the week drags on, and you won’t find yourself the day of class realizing you haven’t practiced anything you learned last week.
Consistency Is Key
How consistent you are with your training is arguably more important than how long you spend training with your dog. Regular training sessions that are short are more effective than long training sessions spread further apart. Even just a few minutes spent practicing a skill can help you and your dog to feel prepared to build off the skill your learned last week. Keep your training sessions short and fun, and try to end with something positive to keep your dog excited about training.
Doing Homework In Small Spaces
Your dog’s trainer wants to see you and your dog be successful at any of the activities that you are pursuing. If you’re feeling uncertain about how to do something you’ve been assigned as homework, or don’t know how to make the exercises work in the space you have or with the equipment you have at home, it’s always OK to ask for help. Your trainer can support you with figuring out how to adjust the exercises for the space you have.
Regardless of what kind of sport or skill training you’re doing, there are opportunities for you and your dog to practice at home—even if it typically takes a lot of space or equipment. If you live in a small home or even an apartment there are training and handling skills, you can work on in the space that is available.
For Obedience and Rally, you can work on focus, engagement, specific exercises, or tightening and cleaning up your dog’s position changes. All these things can be worked on without much space. Even with a sport like Agility, it’s often possible to practice complicated handling skills at home with just a small jump, weave poles, or even just in the middle of your living room.