Setting Appropriate Goals in Dog Training

dog-friendly patios can be successfully navigated with your dog with preparation and practice

Setting goals in dog training is important.  It is key to know your dog and set realistic expectations for you and your dog.  As a dog trainer, I often see owners who have unrealistic expectations of not only their dogs, but of themselves as well.

As an example, I once had a client who felt that she should be able to train 60 min a day, everyday, with her dog.  While this is ambitious, it is not realistic for most people.  Most of us have jobs, other interests, friends, family and a home to care for; not to mention our own health and personal improvement!

Sometimes, the issue is that we have unrealistic expectations of our dogs.  I often get calls from dog owners who have reactive dogs and the primary goal is for their dog to be able to go to dog parks and have fun.  This may not be what the dog wants or needs.

For our dogs to be successful in training, it is essential that we be willing and able to set realistic expectations and to set goals that really meet the needs of dog and owner.



What are the elements of an appropriate goal in dog training?

Have you heard the phrase SMART goals?  SMART goals are often used in self improvement, business development and other practical applications in life.  SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.

What does all this mean and how does it relate to dog training goals? Let's take a closer look at each of these.


understanding your dogs body language is key to success


Goals that are too generic are harder to achieve.  It's harder to stay motivated if our goals are too generic and vague.  Think of losing weight or getting fit.  It's harder to stay motivated if your goal is to "lose weight" versus "I want to lose 10lbs".

In dog training, it's much the same way.  To set a goal of "I want my dog to walk better on leash" is vague and will most likely lead to frustration on your behalf as well as with your dog.  Instead, I encourage owners to set a goal like "I'd like to be able to take my dog for a walk and have her maintain a loose leash"

When you and your dog trainer are discussing your goals, think more specific.  In fact, the more specific the better!



Goals need to be measurable, or we have difficulty knowing if we are making progress.  I recommend finding goals that can be measured in more than one way.

Let's go back to the weight loss goal.  Say I want to lose 10 pounds- that is specific and measurable, but I could also say "I want to lose 10 pounds and fit a new dress I bought".  Now, I can measure the goal by the number on a scale or by how the new dress fits.

Looking at our loose leash example, "I want my dog to walk with a loose leash" is specific, but not really measurable.  You could say something like "I want to be able to walk my dog around the block with a loose leash" or "I'd like my dog to walk with a loose leash for 15 min".  These are easy to measure progress.

In relation to reactive dogs, a goal I routinely set for my clients is to "be able to pass by another dog within 20 ft without lunging, pulling or barking". This is easy for owners to see if progress is being made.  If a dog used to bark, lunge and growl when a person was 50ft away, but now only barks and can be redirected when a dog is that same 50 ft, we know we are making progress.  Similarly, if our client dog does not react until a dog is 30 ft away instead of 50ft away, progress is able to be seen.




Goals need to be achievable, or we set ourselves up to feel like we failed.  We are destined to feel frustration if we do not set a goal that is achievable.

Going back to our weight loss goal.  If I say I want to lose 10 pounds this week, that is not achievable.  Not only will I fail, but most likely I will become discouraged and give up trying.  On the other hand, if I set my timeline for 1 month, that is achievable with focus and determination.

Looking at our loose leash example.  If a client were to say to me "I want my dog to walk with a loose leash, next to me the entire walk by next week" I would tell them that this is not achievable or reasonable.  Dogs have needs that we need to take into account, like sniffing, and they need time to learn like we do.

Looking at our reactive dogs, saying that you want a dog to be comfortable in a dog park or to be perfectly calm at an outdoor patio by next month.  We would have to have a discussion on how achievable that was.  For one thing, some reactive dogs will never be comfortable playing with strange dogs- and that is ok!  Not every dog is social.

The same is true for patios.  For some dogs, outdoor patios are stressful and they are not able to relax.  For those dogs, it may be a more achievable goal to say "I want to learn how to introduce my dog to other dogs in a way that they are comfortable with" or "I want to learn to read my dogs body language so I know if they are comfortable in a situation or not".  Sometimes, our best action is to leave our dog at home while we go out to the social events.


Goals need to be relevant to the issue at hand.  Keeping our goals relevant,helps us to stay motivated because we can see why our work is worth it.  For example, if I want to lose weight because I want to "feel better" that is so vague that it cannot align with our overall value and long term goals.

Instead, a way to make the goal more relevant would be to say "I want to lose 10 pounds because I will feel more confident when I am working out or seeing friends."

For our loose leash walking client, relevance may be saying "I want to walk with my dog on a loose leash around the block so we can both enjoy the walk and spending time together outside of the house"

Many reactive dog clients will say "I want my dog to be able to pass a dog across the street without barking or lunging, so that we can both experience less stress and my dog can relax while we are walking"


Timely goals have a time line attached to them.  They are sometimes called Timebound goals.  Look at our weight loss goal- setting a timeline of 1 month is a timely example.  Or, we can say, "I want to lose 10 pounds before a vacation in one month and fit into a new dress.  I'll do this by going to the gym for 30 min four times a week"

Looking at our loose leash walking client, having a timeline may help clients feel more patient with the process.  For example, we may say, "by the end of summer, I would like to be able to walk my dog for 30 min with a loose leash".

For a reactive dog, we may say something like, "By this time next year, I would like my dog to be able to pass a dog within 20 ft without barking or lunging so we can enjoy our time together".


dog training marker word

Other Factors for good goals in dog training

As a trainer, we will often ask our clients to document or track behaviors.  The reason for this is because it is helpful, not only for the trainer, but also for owners to see progress.  For example if we are tracking incidents of reactivity, it may not be easy to see progress.  When we are tracking the behaviors and distances, it will be easier for the owner to see small gains- and every small gain matters!

I once worked with an incredibly dedicated owner.  She had just adopted a dog who was so shy and nervous, that she needed to sit on the ground and encourage the dog to walk 2-5 steps at a time.  As her dog progressed, she would sometimes get frustrated that she wasn't playing with other dogs or making progress.

When we would review where she started and that one of our first wins was when her dog walked over the door threshold without being carried, it was helpful.  It was also helpful for her when we recalled that when she joined our group walk for the first time, her dog needed to stay back about 200 ft.  Now, she and her dog lead our group hikes!  It was by celebrating the small wins that she was able to build on it and keep going.

It is also essential that we be flexible and ready to change direction if our dogs indicate that is needed.  Sometimes, we set up a plan, but it does not work as planned.  If our dogs are not responding, then we may need to stop and change gears.  That is ok!

One of the most important items in setting good goals in dog training, is remembering to give ourselves and our dogs grace.  None of us are perfect.  We all have off days, our dogs are no different.  Some days will go better than others, it's ok and totally normal!

Enrichment plays a big part in our dog training.  When we meet our dogs needs, they are better able to learn, to focus and to do what we are asking them to do.

Remember to have fun.  Dog training should be about creating a better relationship with our dogs.  I believe our relationships are give and take- we need to be having fun to build a better bond!

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