Today one of my students asked me, “At what point would their dog be trained to be perfect?”
The answer is “Never.”
Your dog will never be trained to be consistently perfect. What will happen is that you, the handler, will learn to respond quickly and reliably at all times to each of your dog’s actions within training. In effect, your dog will improve as you become a more consistent trainer. Your responses will occur almost unconsciously, removing the traces of error before they are visible. Your dog will then respond by developing new tendencies and habits, but these too are always open to deviation.
If your dog forges just the tiniest bit in heeling, a highly skilled trainer will respond instantly so that the forging is addressed before anyone else can even see it. If your dog goes wide after a jump then a highly skilled trainer will make sure that their next few training decisions counteract that behavior – possibly altering reward placement or pulling the behavior out of sequences altogether for remedial work.
Training for precision is different than training a dog to simply respond to a cue with low criteria. For example, if “sit” means get your butt down, anywhere, anyway, and at any speed, then you might go weeks or months with no real failure, because tolerance for deviation is built into your cue. But if sit includes criteria of placement, speed and exact position, then you will not have this good fortune. The more criteria that you include in your definition, the more maintenance that cue will require. This reality will be true of every single precision behavior that you teach. More criteria? More maintenance.
Over time, you will learn which behaviors are most at risk for your particular dog’s temperament and training history, and you will learn to pay special attention to those weaker areas. Forever. It makes no sense to get frustrated with your dog over these natural variations in behavior. Your dog is no different than the next one. If you can accept that natural variation is a law of nature then you’ll stay in a much happier place with your dog.
If your dog’s tendencies are against what we want to see in competition, for example, your dog prefers to sit with a leg sticking out, then you will constantly battle that tendency – every single time you see the most beginning indications of that leg sticking out, you will respond quietly and unconsciously.
Great training skill develops over time as the handler becomes faster, more responsive, and more aware of who their dog is and what their dog needs to perform at their best in competition. More games with flow and movement or more precision with drills and foundation skills? Shorter or longer sessions? The list goes on and on, and the answers will depend on your team.
And then you will compete. If you’ve done an excellent job and if it is a good day, then perfect will happen in the ring. And as soon as you leave the ring and return to training then you will go back to what you always do – addressing every deviation. Instantly.
If you believe that this is not correct, then hand a fully trained, truly beautiful worker from any sport to a novice handler for one month. At the end of the month, you will see the results; the dog’s natural tendencies will begin to re-emerge, blending with whatever the novice handler’s tendencies contribute. Your perfect dog will be gone.
Perfection as a permanent condition? That is not possible.