If you are having trouble working on specific behaviors with your dog, one of the first thing a trainer will look at is what "criteria" you are using. Frequently trouble spots can be cleared up by what's called "splitting criteria."
In dog training terms, "criteria" is any specific component of the command or behavior you are trying to teach. Let's examine this by looking at a popular training goal: to teach your dog to sit-stay while you open the door for a visitor.
For lots and lots of people, they have trained a really good sit-stay. So whyyyy can't the dog just sit-stay when someone comes to the door?
This is where criteria comes into play. When you practice sit-stay with your dog, you probably practice staying for up to five minutes, maybe you can even leave the room while your dog holds the sit-stay. Maybe you can get a sit-stay while you pour a bowl of dinner and set it on the ground. Good work!
Based on that hypothetical dog, here are the "criteria" for sit-stay. 1) Up to five minutes. 2) While owner leaves the room and returns. 3) While owner pours food and puts down bowl.
Here are the criteria, however, for sit-stay when someone comes to the door and knocks!
1) Sit-stay during knock on the door.
2) Sit-stay while owner moves towards the knock.
3) Sit-stay while owner reaches for the doorknob.
4) Sit-stay while owner opens door.
5) Sit-stay while new person comes in.
Each one of those new criteria can be trained separately, then your dog will have a much easier time putting them together during the big event!
You will need a helper for this, but a sample training plan would go something like this.
1) Helper knocks. Cue "Sit," then cue "Stay." You just need a 2 or 3 second stay for this part. "Yes" and treat and repeat until it is easy for your dog to sit-stay when he hears the knock!
2) Helper knocks. Cue "Sit," then "Stay" and walk towards the door, but don't touch it. "Yes" and treat and repeat this until it's easy.
3) Work through the other criteria (reaching for the doorknob, then opening the door, then a new person coming in) until the dog can do the whole thing (for one "Yes" at the end.)
4) Having trouble? Then you might need to split criteria even more!
Many dogs can handle you reaching for and touching the doorknob. But it's that audible "jiggle" that causes them to break their stays. So if your dog is having this trouble, you can add the "jiggle" in as an additional criteria. A sort of "mid-level" criteria in between you reaching for the door, and the door opening. This is where the term "splitting criteria" comes in.
As you get better and better at training, you will be able to move quickly and easily between criteria, and develop a good eye for when to move on, and when to stop and split criteria. Each dog is different, so you will know where your dogs tricky spots are and where it needs some extra help. Eventually you will be able to do this fluently, like it is second nature!