SMARTER Goal Setting for Animal Professionals Part 1

Written by Elisheba Fay, CDBC, CPDT-KA

Peer reviewed

Summary: SMARTER is a mnemonic used to define measurable goals. This article introduces the concept of SMARTER goals and gives examples of how trainers and behavior consultants can give their clients goals that meet the first 3 criteria (Specific, Measurable, Acheivable) 


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), and they are often difficult or impossible to measure, vague, or sometimes just plain ridiculous.

The SMART goal format, first made famous by Doran in 1981[1] and expanded by Yemm with the Evaluate and Reassess criteria in 2013[2], 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 introduce the use of SMARTER goals for training and behavior professionals, beginning with the S, M, and A components.

S: Specific

In animal training, it’s especially important to include information not only on what will happen (e.g., Reggie will perform a hand touch) but under what conditions it will occur. How many times have we had a client arrive at class claiming their dog can already do everything, but in the session they’re unable to reproduce those results? Some examples might include:

  • Number or type of cues (given one verbal cue, Reggie will perform a hand touch)
  • Location/setting (Reggie will perform a hand touch in the training studio)
  • Person working the dog (Reggie will perform a hand touch with Elisheba)
  • Duration (Reggie will maintain a hand touch for 1 second)
  • Distance (Reggie will perform a hand touch starting from distances up to 10 feet from handler)
  • Distraction (Reggie will perform hand touches in the presence of sheep)

Now comes the hard part: While most trainers don’t actually write out smart goals for our animal learners, they often have many of the components for specificity implicitly decided on. But we (most of us, anyway) don’t just teach animals — we teach people.

What goals do we set for our human clients?

  • Susan will bring high-value rewards (e.g., hot dogs, cheese, chicken) to class
  • Tom will give single cues to Buster
  • Taylor will practice front crosses without a dog
  • Maria will click as George’s elbows touch the ground for the “down” behavior

When we struggle with clients’ lagging skills week after week, it’s often because we don’t effectively identify, communicate, and support our goals for them. Explicitly setting and sharing SMARTER goals with and for our human learners can help produce buy-in and accelerate our progress toward those goals.

M: Measurable

I’ll admit it, I’m a geek in the measurement department, but this component is probably the most-skipped in everyday goal setting. It’s an incredibly important element to monitoring your instructional effectiveness (is it working?!) and often provides critical motivation when working on longer-term issues.

What kinds of measurement can we use?

The easiest kinds of goals for measurability are binary: either you did it or you didn’t. This could look like:

  • Bella will earn her Canine Good Citizen title
  • Tamir will trim Duke’s nails

Sometimes these measurements really are all we need, particularly for less complex or shorter-term problems. Binary goals fall short when we have bigger fish to fry. For example, I’m not that interested in Tamir trimming Duke’s nails once. What I really want is for Tamir to develop a habit of trimming his dog’s nails regularly. Now what?

Let’s assume we already have baseline data for this goal. In this case, Tamir last took Duke to the groomer for a nail trim about a year ago. We’re also going to assume, for this example, that the only barrier we have is creating the habit: Tamir knows how to cut Duke’s nails safely and has the correct equipment, and Duke has no issues with this kind of handling.

Now let’s think about what perfect would look like (our Outcome Goal). For nail trims, we can set the “standard” at once a week. We can think of once a week in several different ways:

  • Once every week
  • Four times every month
  • Every Tuesday
  • 52 times a year
  • 100% of weeks

Consecutive trials: Goals can be measured by how many times in a row they are done.

Once a week or every Tuesday quickly becomes a binary goal again. The first time Tamir forgets, the goal is a failure — not very motivating for most of us! So we’re going to add a second level of complexity here. We want a habit over time, so let’s think about consecutive trials — that is, how many weeks in a row will Tamir need to trim Duke’s nails for us to feel confident that the habit is in place (or at least well on its way)? For simplicity let’s say four consecutive weeks. So we have:

Tamir will trim Duke’s nails once a week for four consecutive weeks.

It’s measurable, but it’s also flexible. Tamir can make it up to two weeks, miss one, and still keep trying.

X/X trials: Goals can be measured by how many times a behavior is performed out of a set number of attempts or opportunities

An even more flexible option is x/x trials:

Tamir will trim Duke’s nails four out of four weeks.

X/time: Goals can be measured by how many times a behavior is performed over a specific period of time

Four times every month (x/time) is fairly flexible, but that flexibility isn’t necessarily helpful for us with this particular goal. It allows Tamir to trim nails any day of the week, but it also allows for some weirder scenarios, for example trimming Duke’s nails once on the 2nd of the month, twice on the 20th, and again on the 31st. This kind of schedule works well for some kinds of goals (like training sessions per week) but since we need a fairly consistent stretch of time between nail trims it’s not the best for us. Opting for 52 times a year has some of the same issues, plus a very large goal (a whole year worth of nail trims) that is difficult to track (not Timely) and an awfully high bar.

Percent success: Goals can be measured by the percent of successful trials versus total trials

100% of weeks (percent success) could work well for us, but we’ll need to limit it for easier tracking — 100% of weeks in the summer, for example. There is an added level of “math” here in calculating the percentage, so don’t use this option if it turns you or your client off.

A: Attainable

Effective, motivating goals require effort but stay ATTAINABLE. If in doubt, make your goal smaller. A learner who has achieved success will still be there for a new, more challenging goal, but if the initial goal is too big (an Outcome goal rather than a TIMELY, RELEVANT Process goal), frustration and quitting are real risks.

Now we need to think about what constitutes a habit, remembering that nobody is perfect. We need to create a definition of success that is ATTAINABLE from our current baseline.

This concept is very important in crafting goals that we can stick to and actually benefit from. Having completed a solid initial assessment, we know where we are starting (baseline) and we know what perfect would look like, so we shoot for something in between. If it’s a new or difficult goal, stay closer to baseline, or modify your procedure or antecedents to create conditions for errorless learning. If your learner succeeds easily, that’s great! You can always write a new goal with higher criteria when you REEVALUATE. In this case, Tamir feels pretty confident that he can remember to trim Duke’s nails three weeks out of five, which is a huge jump up from zero. We’ll start there.

Tamir will trim Duke’s nails three out of five consecutive weeks.

Some other goals could be:

  • Ginger will select the correct scent article on 90% of trials
  • Ellis will practice the week’s training homework two times before the next class
  • Smita will correctly identify signs of stress in Kutta on eight out of ten opportunities
  • Asher will remember to bring high-value treats to five consecutive classes.

As we look at our goals, we should always keep antecedent arrangement in mind for higher success. How can I arrange my training setups so that Ginger can learn her scent articles errorlessly? Can I help Ellis and Asher to set up reminders or calendar appointments on their phone to help them remember to practice and bring treats? Can I check in with Tamir at class every week about nail trims? Whenever we’re setting a goal that’s relatively far from our ideal we should look at the conditions and our methods and see if we can get closer to errorless learning for both people and animals.

Attainable goals are a classic area of challenge for teachers of all kinds of learners. Of course we want our learners to accomplish great things and have success at the highest levels! That said, focusing on large-scale Outcome goals (Spector will earn a Master Agility Champion title) when we’re encountering much smaller-scale challenges (Spector is struggling with weaves) isn’t usually helpful. Instead we need to use assessment and careful observation to zero in on the most RELEVANT challenges, consider the length of our TIME-BOUND goal, and set a shorter-term process goal that can be effectively MEASURED in progress. This process also often involves an analysis of what antecedents we can arrange for success and how we can gradually release that arrangement as we move toward more “real world” conditions.

Baselines and Assessment

A robust assessment process is crucial to determining what an ATTAINABLE goal might be. Without a baseline that takes into account not only an accurate description of exactly what the current levels of performance are but what the barriers are to greater success, we can’t project what our learner might be able to do given another month, three months, or year. This is a process of rigorous honesty and deep observation.

Perhaps I’m struggling with getting consistent weave performance in agility trials with Spector. I’ll need to look closely at his performance not only in trial but in training scenarios to determine the baseline behavior and be able to project an attainable goal.

With a few exceptions, we don’t use formal assessment methods in dog training. We do, however, have a powerful tool at our disposal for establishing the baselines and making the hypotheses we need to make ATTAINABLE goals: video! As painful as it can sometimes be to truly observe our training on tape, it can also sometimes show us the little successes and joyful moments that keep us going! Even if it makes you squirm (as it does me) to record and actually review your sessions, make it a habit (you can write yourself a SMARTER goal around it!). When you have the simple facts of performance in front of you, it becomes much simpler to measure (how many times did we really have to repeat the sequence for Spector to complete the weaves correctly?) and to make hypotheses about where skills may be missing or performance may be breaking down (did he complete the entries correctly but pop out at the seventh pole each time? Did he pop out when I talked to him in the weaves? When I reached for a toy to reward near the end?).

Another indispensable tool for assessment and hypothesis is getting other expert perspectives. This pairs beautifully with video recording your sessions. You can now access help near and far, live or delayed. If you struggle to see what the barriers to success for a particular behavior and learner are, or if your hypotheses and resulting goals don’t lead to the success you’re expecting, it’s time to enlist help.

Now that we have our baseline data, we can begin to develop hypotheses about barriers to success that will shape the form and attainment of our goal, as well as the training that will get us there.

Let’s say that when I analyze my training videos I find that Spector has a habit of completing the weaves correctly only after several tries (an average of one out of three attempts) in training — the other two out of three times he misses an entry or pops out or perhaps skips them altogether. In this case, my problem isn’t a trial problem — it’s a lack of basic understanding of how to enter and stay in the weaves. Even though I’m able to get through courses through sheer repetition in training and perhaps convince myself that my dog has the skill, his misunderstanding shows up when repetition isn’t an option. For this dog our goal should be training the specific missing or lagging skills (such as entry or completion) with high accuracy in the training environment first.

Spector will enter the weaves correctly from a variety of angles on nine out of ten attempts.

Notice I have maintained the SPECIFICITY and RELEVANCE of my goal — because this dog has breakdown in a variety of subskills, my success doesn’t require performance of the whole skill yet, only the entries subskill. I may also want to include antecedent information here as conditions to my goal. Perhaps I’m using weave guides, channels, 2x2s, etc. What conditions create the maximum likelihood of success for both Spector and me?

This is a different problem from the dog who completes the weaves with perfect accuracy and energy in the training, but falls apart in high-arousal, high-pressure trial environments. This dog may show us the most errors in weaves as it’s the most complex agility skill for many dogs, but perhaps we see them blowing contacts or knocking bars from time to time as well. This dog doesn’t have a misunderstanding of how to complete the weaves or other obstacles, but lacks skills for handling stress, pressure, or arousal. My goal for them might have nothing to do with weaves initially (after all, that’s not where the real problem is) but might instead be indicators of clear thinking in a high arousal environment.

  • Juno will eat mid-value food with a calm mouth near the ring on nine of ten opportunities, or
  • Juno will successfully play the Take a Breath game[3] near the ring for 30 seconds before entering on three of four opportunities.

Once we have a solid baseline of performance and a hypothesis to guide what kind of goal we should set, finding ATTAINABLE goals is relatively simple! If Spector can currently do weave entries from approach angles up to 15° on two out of five attempts, I can alter the conditions (up to 90° entries) or the success ratio (four out of five attempts), or both.

It’s important to remember that because we’re making hypotheses about barriers to success for our learner, we may need to REEVALUATE our hypotheses and therefore our goals based on EVALUATION — our ongoing measurement.

Perhaps Juno is never able to eat food with a calm mouth near the ring, in which case we may need to change the conditions of our goal: Can she eat calmly farther away from the ring? In training?

Perhaps she can participate flawlessly in Take a Breath before entering the ring but continues to make many errors in her runs. What would be a better support and indicator for her to remain clear-headed in the ring?

The process of goal setting is cyclical — informed and reinformed by the data of our learner’s performance.

By taking some time to clarify and deconstruct our goals we can improve the focus and success of our training efforts, reducing frustration for both humans and animals in the process. Choosing goals that are Specific, Measurable, and Attainable will begin this process; in the second part of this series, we will add the Relevant, Time-bound, and Evaluate/Reassess components of a solid training goal.

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. Pearson Education. pp. 37–39.
  3. McDevitt, L. (2007). Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog. South Hadley, MA: Clean Run Productions LLC.

Elisheba Fay CDBC, CPDT-KA has been working, playing, and sharing her life with dogs for over 25 years.  She has trained service and guide dogs, A white woman with short brown hair and glasses, facing right, head tilted up, being licked on the chin by a Dutch shepherd dogsport dogs, and now focuses mainly on behavior modification work, as well as enjoying time with her own five dogs and her partner, who is also a professional behavior consultant.  You can reach her through her website at www.artandscience.dog

TO CITE: Fay, E. (2022) SMARTER goal-setting for animal behavior professionals part 1. The IAABC Foundation Journal 25, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj25.2

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