The Strategy for Building a Training Plan You'll ACTUALLY Stick To

(Caveat: If you're reading this post after the COVID-19 storm has passed and the world has gone back to normal, or a new normal, everything I have to say below is still relevant and useful to making your training plans a reality! So, read on…)

The COVID-19 pandemic has launched the world into crisis, leaving us all in uncharted waters. We don't know how things will unfold, or what's going to come next. And that's pretty scary.

The upside of this time of Social Distancing and self-quarantine is that many of us suddenly have time for doing things we have been meaning to get to for ages… like training our dogs! So, naturally that's what you've been doing since being stuck at home. Right?

No? Me neither. 

I don't know about you, but I've been pacing around my house, doing this and that, starting 10 projects at once, and finishing none. I've been checking the news regularly (after not paying attention to the mainstream media for years), chatting on messenger, and spending far too many hours on social media.

OK, if I'm being honest, my behaviour this week hasn't been hugely different from how I typically go through my days, in terms of filling my time with less than useful tasks instead of getting focused and making progress on what actually matters to me.

So, after allowing myself some time to adjust and recover from the shock and fear of the pandemic, I'm ready to start using my unscheduled free time for something more productive.

Care to join me? Terrific! Let's do this.

There are three phases to creating an effective training plan that you'll actually follow:

  1. Set yourself up for success
  2. Create and implement the plan
  3. Assess and adjust

Phase 1: Set yourself up for success

This phase is all about training your brain. Setting yourself up for success is the most important phase in creating an effective training plan because, if you don't get this part sorted out, you'll have a really hard time sustaining the training part.

To succeed, you have to get your brain to work with you instead of against you. To do so, you need to figure out what's holding you back. I could spend the rest of this blog post (or a whole six week course!) just on this one point. But, for brevity, here's a little exercise to help you get unstuck.

Grab a pen and paper and write down the reasons you don't get the training done as you hope and plan to do. Go on, do it now. This is important, so I'll wait…

*** Still waiting… go do it!***

Done? Ok, great. Now, let me guess at some thoughts that might be on that sheet of paper:

  • I don't have time
  • I don't have the right equipment
  • I don't have the space
  • I don't know what to do
  • I don't have a plan


AmIright?

If you said yes to any of the above, you're not going to like what I have to say next: These are all just excuses. They're not the real reason you're not training.

How do I know? Well, for one, if you have time to read this post, you have time to train. But, more critically, if your BTF (best training friend) came to you and told you the above, what would you say to her? I bet you'd easily point out how she's wrong on each count. How she can find time, makeshift equipment, and figure the rest out.

And if this is true for your BTF, it's true for you too. Right? Right.

So, what's really holding you back? A fear of failure? A fear of success? A fear of being seen? There's always something deeper going on. And until you figure it out, you're going to be hard pressed to stick to your training plan, regardless of how awesome it is.

If you want to dig deeper, I've created this free resource to help you figure things out.

Phase 2: Create and Implement your Plan

Many people claim that creating a plan is their biggest block but it's actually the simplest step. Once you get through Phase 1, your brain should start brimming with ideas. Your job now is to focus those ideas into a step by step process. Here's how:

1. Identify your goals 

What is your overarching goal in dog training? Consider the big picture. Ten years from now, what would you like to have achieved? Learned? Mastered? What about in Five years? One year?

Grab that sheet of paper again, and write down your answers.

Once you have your one year goal identified, you're ready to start creating a plan. I like to break my year into quarters, and then create plans in three month blocks. Keeping my one year goal in mind, I only create a plan for the three months ahead of me. I then create a new plan for the next three months when I get there.

For example, if I'm starting to train a new dog in agility, I might set the goal of running a trial one year from now. I can then break down my training into quarters, as follows: Quarter 1: Teaching foundation obstacle skills and handling; Quarter 2: Running short sequences; Quarter 3: Running full courses; Quarter 4: Proofing our skills in new environments and at fun trials.

Throughout all of this, I should also work on fitness, engagement, and "spaces in between" skills (i.e., all the "soft" skills my dog needs to be able to function comfortably in a trial environment).

2. What pieces do you need RIGHT NOW? 

Next, look at the steps you need to take to achieve your three month goal. Chunk it down into categories and figure out the order in which you need to teach the various skills.

Keeping with the above example, I can look at Quarter 1 goals of teaching foundation obstacle and handling skills. This means that, over the next three months, I need to teach jumping skills, contacts, weave poles, and handling.

From here, I have a decision to make: Am I going to teach these pieces in parallel (at the same time) or in tandem (one after another)?

Note: there is no right answer here. It really depends on you and your dog. Do you like to dive deep into one thing and stay focused? If yes, work on one piece at a time (I would suggest for no longer than one week each). In this case, you can spend a week on weaves, and then a week on jump skills, followed by a week on contacts etc.

I find this tandem approach is helpful if time is limited as you can leave your equipment in place, and only need to change it up once a week. You also don't have to change gears in your training as often, which is mentally more efficient.

If you get bored easily, however, and have the time, you might want to mix up the pieces throughout the week, alternating from day to day what you're working on.

Either approach is totally fine. Simply decide what works best for you and your dog. Don't know? Pick one, try it, and evaluate the outcome (that's Phase 3!). Then either keep going or try the other approach.

My next step is to break out each skill and write out the steps for teaching It. If you don't know what those steps are, reach out to training friends, a mentor, a coach, take an on-line course, ask in a training group you respect, buy a book, or search YouTube for ideas.

Once I have the steps written out, I choose what I'm going to work on THIS WEEK. I don't make detailed plans for more than one week at a time. (I'll explain why in a moment).

Again keeping with the example above, I know I have three months to train all the basic skills. However, THIS WEEK I'm going to spend two days on weaves and three days on jump skills. I look at my step by step list for each skill, write down the first couple of steps to work on, and Bob's your uncle! There's my plan for the week.

(I told you creating the plan is the easy part… if you follow these steps, it kinda actually creates itself).

Now, to execute your plan, you need to:

  • Identify when (time / day) you can train most easily: Take into consideration your schedule, what's happening around you at that time, your energy, and your dog's energy levels)
  • Find a trigger: When deciding the above, tie your training time to something that you already do. For example, I put the kettle on for tea as soon as I get up in the morning. While I wait for it to boil, I do two minutes of training in my kitchen. Turning on the kettle is my training trigger in this scenario.
  • Set up your training space: Given what you are training THIS WEEK, and when, where is it easiest to make that happen? Decide, and set up your training area so all you have to do is walk in and GO. For example, I keep training treats on my fridge, and a couple of props in the corner of my kitchen. Kettle on, and Boom! Dog trained by tea time. I can do the same in the afternoon too!

Phase 3: Assess and Adjust

One of the most critical aspects of training effectively is record keeping. We can do this in a number of ways, but the most effective approach is to video your training coupled with keeping written training notes.

I generally keep a journal in my training area, and that journal has the details of my training plan steps. When I train, I'll place a check mark next to what I've worked on. At the end of my session, I'll make a note of what to work on next based on what happened in the session.

I'll also watch my video to determine what I'm doing well, how we're progressing, and what I need to work on in upcoming sessions. I'll make a few brief notes, and use those to guide our next session.

It's important to know that your training will rarely go as planned. This is why I never write out a detailed training plan beyond one week. Some weeks, we'll make progress way faster than I could have imagined! And others? (most weeks!) We'll get stuck, or I'll discover a hole in my training that I need to fix before we can move on.

By having the steps written out in advance, I can move forward easily when we're ready. By taking notes and video, I can more easily identify when we might need to adjust the plan to slow down or take a step off to the side. Another great thing about video is that you can show it to others when you get stuck. Because you will get stuck! Plan on that too. It's totally fine and happens to all of us. A lot.

Finally, at the end of the week, go over your notes and assess your results: What went well? What did your dog teach you? What do you know now that you didn't know a week ago? Then, review the upcoming steps and decide what you're going to work on in the new week to come. 

To recap: Creating an effective training plan that you'll actually stick to involves the following steps: 

Phase 1:

  • Identify what's really holding you back.
  • Train your brain to get out of your way.

Phase 2:

  • Identify your goals: 10 years out, 5 years out, 1 year out.
  • Break your 1 year goal down into quarterly chunks, and list the skills you need to teach, in order, for each quarter.
  • Break out your Quarter 1 skill, and write out step by step how to teach them
  • Choose either a parallel or tandem approach
  • Select from your list what you're going to work on THIS WEEK
  • Write out the steps, and there's your plan!
  • Decide when and where to train, and set up your training area.

Phase 3:

  • Record keep as you train
  • Review your results at least once a week
  • Adjust your plan accordingly.


Again if you approach your training mechanically, your plan will create itself!

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