SMARTER Goal Setting for Animal Professionals Part 2

Written by Elisheba Fay, CDBC, CPDT-KA

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Brightly colored letters S M A R T. A decorative cover image.

Summary: SMARTER is a mnemonic used to define measurable goals. This article builds on the concept of SMARTER goals introduced in part 1 and gives examples of how trainers and behavior consultants can give their clients goals that meet the last 4 criteria (Relevant, Time-bound, Evaluated, and Reassessed).


When goals are poorly conceived or just not present, intervention is not targeted precisely and learners don’t progress the way we’d like them to.

As a special education teacher, I’ve written literally thousands of measurable goals for student progress. I’ve probably read tens of thousands. Most of them are terrible. They may lack relevance for the student (not based in solid assessment and understanding of developmental pathways), or they might be difficult or impossible to measure, vague, or sometimes just plain ridiculous.

The SMART goal format, first made famous by Doran in 19811 and expanded by Yemm with the Evaluate and Reassess criteria in 20132, has been used in education and other professional fields for decades. Using this mnemonic (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound, Evaluated, and Reassessed) helps structure our thoughts in order to produce a concise statement that communicates all of the most important information needed to pursue and track our progress toward the goal.
This article will continue our overview of the use of SMARTER goals for training and behavior professionals with the R, T, and E/R components.

R: Relevant

We owe authentic, Relevant goals and supporting interventions to our learners, both human and non-human.

The first and most obvious component of Relevance is ensuring that our procedures are actually designed to target the behaviors we want to build. How many times have we seen dogs struggling with reactivity or aggression go through training programs that focus on stationing and heeling, only to leave their guardians even more frustrated and overwhelmed, and out thousands of dollars? Sometimes these goals are client requests, as in the case of handlers who want to work on sport behaviors when their dog has serious emotional and behavioral needs that should be addressed first for their wellbeing or safety.

Irrelevant goals can also be much harder to spot; they may include procedures that are scientifically sound, but still lack Relevance because they don’t treat the learner as a whole. A pervasive example is attempting to address reactive behavior in isolation without a concerted effort to meet the underlying physical, enrichment, management/antecedent arrangement, and social/emotional needs of the learner first. Being a LIMA (Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive)3 trainer doesn’t just mean not using certain tools (or using them only after alternatives have been appropriately exhausted). To use least invasive methods means treating the learner as a whole being with species- and breed-specific needs that deserve to be met and must be met for training or behavior modification to be successful.4,5 We must remember that training, even with the most innocuous tools, is inherently an invasive process that should be undertaken thoughtfully. Training is a valuable asset within the LIMA framework and is a tremendously powerful and often joyful tool, but as trainers and behavior consultants we often treat all behavior concerns as nails for which we have the clicker hammer. Instead, we must first make and pursue goals that ensure our learner has their exercise, enrichment, nutrition, and other higher-priority needs met (Relevance). Only then will we achieve Timely and effective progress using our training or behavior modification procedures.

Let’s return to the first, most obvious form of non-relevant goal setting: procedures that don’t accurately target the behavioral needs of our learner. We’ll assume that for a given case the non-human learner is already receiving quality nutrition, medical care, exercise, and enrichment, and that training is therefore the next step to resolving a challenging behavior, but the training goals don’t resolve the problem because they are not Relevant (such as the program focused on stationing and heeling for a dog with reactivity). Sometimes such mismatches are due to trainers simply not caring that they’re leaving the most pressing issues untouched, but more often they’re due to either failure of assessment (have we correctly identified current levels of performance and barriers to success?) or “wish in the dark” training by practitioners who have taken on cases beyond their skill level. While there will likely always be unethical practitioners willing to sell exorbitant training packages without regard to actual effectiveness, they will likely never set a SMARTER goal for their learners, so we’ll leave that problem for other minds. The last problem is a pressing one for our community, and learning to refer out when you don’t have a solid training plan based in science and current industry best practice is a skill of its own, but one we won’t address here.

What we can best address here and in our practice is the assessment of root causes and barriers to success that will help us choose appropriate, relevant goals. Our assessment and subsequent data collection (evaluation) guides our goal-setting and our training plan. Let’s take for example a dog who barks and lunges at other dogs on walks. Again, we will assume for the moment that we have addressed physical, enrichment, and social needs, and we need to implement additional tools to reduce that behavior. Historically, even within LIMA and positive reinforcement training, little effort has been made to determine the cause of the behavior (for example, fear-based reactivity versus a frustrated greeter) and a single approach has been used regardless. These cookie cutter training plans admittedly work for many dogs, but for many others the results may be painfully slow or incomplete. When we take the time to carefully collect and analyze data that may lead us to the root cause of the behavior (the function of the behavior) we can choose our goals and interventions more wisely, producing more Timely, effective behavior change.

Relevant goals will reflect the function of the behaviors we want to modify, allowing us to pair them with interventions that help the learner achieve that function in a more acceptable way. For a dog who is fearful of people, we might write a goal about using a start button behavior to “allow” a stranger to approach up to a given distance. For the dog who is overly exuberant, I might write a goal about holding a position while someone approaches up to a given distance or being able to make eye contact with the handler in a pattern game as strangers approach.[6] My tools could be the same (I might also use a start button with an exuberant dog, or a pattern game with a fearful dog), but there must be a reason I believe the particular intervention(s) I’m using will target and support the function of the maladaptive behavior I’m trying to replace. Perhaps I am hypothesizing that the start button will give the unconfident dog a chance to opt out (their function), and at the same time give the boisterous dog a clear way to get to the person (their function)? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every case, but we also don’t get to use cookie cutter approaches to behavior modification.

Relevant goals will treat the whole learner by addressing underlying physical, cognitive, and social/emotional needs and will address the function of behaviors we’re trying to modify. When our goals are relevant, our training progress will be faster (Timely) because we’re actually targeting and addressing the learner in front of us.

T: Timely and Time-Bound

This piece of goal-setting seems pretty straightforward: setting specific Time Limits on our goals helps keep us honest, but it also gives us touchpoints for Evaluating our progress and Reassessing our goals (ER).

For some goals these may be distant times: Fender will earn his UDX (Utility Dog Excellent) by his 5th birthday. These goals (sometimes called “outcome goals”) may guide larger arcs of our training, but don’t do much to help us with what we’re doing on the ground in the moment.

For most goals, the Timely nature of our goals comes into play as much as the Time-Bound quality. We need incremental, immediately accessible goals to keep our training progress on track (in education, we call these objectives, in some other contexts they may be referred to as “process goals”).

For Fender’s outcome goal, we might be working on process goals for several separate skills, for example:

  • Fender will recall to a straight front on 9/10 attempts
  • Fender will access tug reinforcement outside the ring after correctly completing a heeling sequence on 8/10 attempts
  • Fender will select the correct scent article on 9/10 attempts

If we were working with a dog on an outcome goal of loose leash walking, we might have broken that single skill into process goals for several subskills:

  • Lola will orient to her handler when exiting the door on 4/5 attempts
  • Lola will offer check-ins (eye contact) at least once per minute while walking for five minutes
  • Lola will orient to her handler 100% of attempts during the 123 pattern game.[6]

These goals are Timely because they’re all pieces I can work on today in my training session (maybe not all at once, but I have some accessible choices here). I’m not asking Fender to earn a leg toward his CD (Companion Dog title, a prerequisite to his UDX) when he’s still working on delayed reinforcement strategies and clean recalls, and I’m not asking Lola for a one-hour walk on a loose leash when she’s working on basic engagement and arousal control behaviors. Notice that keeping them Timely also helps keep them Relevant and guides our training.

Now to make them Time-Bound: This should be the easy part once we’ve made them Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. We’re almost there!

In order to keep progress moving forward consistently, we need to limit each goal or set of goals so that we can adjust it, either fine-tuning it for better success or moving on to the next set of criteria as we move toward our larger outcome goals. We don’t want these Time Limits to be too frequent (or we won’t have any time to meet our goals!) or too infrequent (because we want to be able to pivot flexibly – we don’t want to work on the same set of goals with no progress for six months before changing them!).

If I’m working on more diverse skill sets, I may want to use different “due dates” based on baseline performance or the difficulty of the skill I’m working with:

  • Fender will recall to a straight front on 9/10 attempts within five weeks from today
  • Fender will access tug reinforcement outside the ring after correctly completing a heeling sequence on 8/10 attempts within four weeks from today
  • Fender will select the correct scent article on 9/10 attempts within three weeks from today

For pet owners and more closely clustered skill sets, I probably want a consistent Reevaluation date:

By our next session in three weeks, Lola will be able to do the following:

  • Lola will reorient (turn to her handler) when exiting the door on 4/5 attempts
  • Lola will offer check-ins (eye contact) at least once per minute while walking for five minutes
  • Lola will orient to her handler 100% of attempts during the 123 pattern game7.

Now we have goals that we can use to direct our training strategies and practice in relevant, achievable directions, and the accountability of Time Bound goals. But we’re not done yet; goal setting isn’t a “set it and forget it” practice.

ER: Evaluate and Reassess

In order to get the most out of our goals as we put them into practice, we still need to Evaluate and Reassess our progress.

Evaluation should take place regularly over the course of your Time Bound goal. Perhaps you Measure progress once a week, or at every session with your coach, or maybe you watch three of your training videos a week and check your accuracy on goals.

Unless your memory is much better than mine, you’ll need some form of record-keeping for these Evaluation points to contribute to your success. For many of us record-keeping is a challenge, but it really will level up your training progress whether with your own dog or client dogs (in which case you’ll also have to teach and support the practice in your human learners). Record-keeping can take as many forms as there are record keepers, but here are a few options:

  • A note on a wall calendar
  • A note in your phone
  • A hand-drawn graph on the wall
  • A Trello card
  • A dedicated notebook
  • A training journal in Notion
  • A Google Sheet or Excel spreadsheet (for those who love a good graph!)

If your goal, like many of the ones we’ve written together, has an X/X format, your data entries can be very simple:

  • Fender scent articles 7/10
  • Lola offered check-ins 3/5 mins

A little plug for graphs though: After a little bit of initial setup, they’re just as fast to plug data points into, and so motivating to look at!

It’s important that you don’t just record your data points, but actually look at them – at least the past several – on a regular basis, so choose a record-keeping strategy that makes this easy to do. As long as you’re aware of the general trajectory of your data points, it’s easy to move up your Reevaluation if you’re not making progress on a goal or have met it ahead of time.

A graph of Fender's straight fronts over time. Fender is steadily improving!

Fender’s straight fronts are improving!

Now that you’re collecting and recording data on your goal, you have the information you’ll need to make an informed Reassessment of your progress when your TIME LIMIT comes (or sooner, if you’re stalled out or way ahead of schedule).

At this point you’ll want to decide whether to:

  • Continue with the same goal (perhaps you’ve almost made it but not quite)
  • Increase criteria (move from 8/10 correct to 10/10 correct)
  • Change the goal (either to a new skill or subskill if you’ve met the criteria of your old goal, or to a more basic foundation skill if you had trouble with the last round of criteria)

If you’re tempted to keep the same goal but drop criteria, think about whether you can adjust your teaching process, change your antecedent arrangement, or otherwise support your learner differently to make this progress period different from the last.

It’s important to have a clear idea of the subskills that make up your larger skill, so that you can make appropriate adjustments to your goals (forward or backward) as needed to build a solid foundation. Spend some time really breaking down the development and components of your target skill so you can guide your learner(s) through it fluently.

A visual breakdown of a recall behavior into component elements

A visual breakdown of a recall behavior into component elements

When you’re clear about the components of your outcome goals and the components of your process goals (SMARTER) you’re in a great place to move fluidly and efficiently toward your training destination!

Record Keeping Resources

References

  1. Doran, G.T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review. 70:11, 35–36.
  2. Yemm, G. (2013). Essential Guide to Leading Your Team: How to Set Goals, Measure Performance and Reward Talent. .Harlow, Pearson Education Press. pp. 37–39.
  3. IAABC (nd) IAABC Position Statement on LIMA
  4. IAABC (nd) Hierarchy of Procedures for Humane and Effective Practice
  5. Friedman, S. G. (2008). What’s wrong with this picture? Effectiveness is not enough. Good Bird ™ Magazine, 4-4.
  6. McDevitt, L. (2019). Control unleashed: Reactive to relaxed. MA, Clean Run Productions LLC.

Elisheba Fay BA, BS, CDBC, CPDT-KA, is a trainer and behavior consultant in the Denver area. She dabbles in sports with her own five dogs when not enjoying decompression walks on the plains. You can reach her at www.artandscience.dog.

TO CITE: Fay, E. (2023) SMARTER goal-setting for animal behavior professionals Part 2. The IAABC Foundation Journal 26, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj26.5

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