Would you say your dog is smart, or dumb?
Most of you will likely answer that he is smart, and you will beam with pride when doing so. You may be correct—he may be smart, or at least smart enough. On the other hand, he may be as dumb as a box of rocks, and you might not have any trouble admitting this truth. You love him either way, right? I mean, it’s not like he needs to graduate from college or anything. Does it really matter?
Well, as far as this blog post is concerned, only in the sense of how much patience you have to train him. Training doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming, but it can definitely be frustrating sometimes to try and communicate with an entirely different species who has zero problems cleaning the most taboo parts of his anatomy with the same tongue with which he licks your face each morning. It’s our job to communicate with them, not their job to figure us out.
So when we get to the work of training, we are likely to get a bit frustrated and impatient at times, even with a normally smart dog. Sometimes, things will go smoothly, and they will be fun. Other times, it will seem like your dog is Dory from the movie “Finding Nemo”: a flighty fish with zero short-term memory skills. So, what do you focus on? Class is in 2 days! The teacher and the other students will judge you, and assume you haven’t even tried to do your homework (probably all in your head, but it’s a story that works for you right now).
|You can't expect a dog to be able to "stay" while you walk|
away (and there are distractions) if he can't even do it with
you standing in front of him. Start with small
steps and get big success.
You feel as if you need to hurry, to do more in less time, so that you can catch up to where you need to be. But the opposite may actually be true.
In their most excellent book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath suggest breaking tasks down, especially tasks that involve helping people change their minds (though it works with dogs), into doable chunks. They call it “shrinking the change.” Author Charles DuHigg also touts the importance of small wins in his book The Power of Habit. “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are possible.”
What does this mean for you, in this moment, as you struggle with your hapless hound?
Incorporate small wins into your training. Slow down, and do less. Stop sooner. End with success. Are you training your dog in 30-minute sessions? Why? Dogs can have short attention spans, too. Do several 3-5 minute sessions per day. This way, the dog gets to win at the game a lot!
Take the tiny advantages the dog is giving you and build patterns with them. Shrink the change, as it were. Cut bigger steps into smaller pieces to make it easier for you and the dog to get where you want to go. In training, we call it “successive approximation.” Want an example?
Does your dog rush past you to get out the door first when you are headed out for a walk? You probably have no idea how to stop this besides holding him back with the leash. Certainly, doing this is better than yelling at him, or allowing him to bowl you over, but it’s not teaching him to wait.
Your dog may not be able to not rush out the door right now, but can he sit for 5 seconds? Yes? Then you can fix this problem. Put him on leash. Tell him to sit, and stand between him and the door. Open the door a crack. Does he rise? Shut the door and make him sit again. Repeat this a few times until he figures out that the door ain’t opening wide enough for him to get through unless his bottom is on the ground. The next time you open the door a crack and he doesn’t break the sit, reward heavily, and go out the door. Start asking him to hold it longer and longer over time, and eventually to look at you when it opens, and eventually to remain inside until you walk out and call him. Voila! You have taken something the dog knows (a 5-second sit) and used it to teach him to wait at thresholds until invited out.
|Want to teach your dog how to fetch? Great idea! |
But if he isn't really interested in balls or toys,
you will need to create value in some items (or at
least one) before he will bring them to you happily.
Marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves. Building trust now by giving the dog easy wins will help you in the long run. Capturing the bits that work will give you something to build on. Think of it as building the foundation of the house, one board at a time.
Tweak the environment. When a situation changes, behavior changes. So change the situation. If you don’t seem to be making any progress, changing the environment can make all the difference. Switch from indoors to out, from a large room to a small one, from your regular training ground to someplace novel.
You can apply this to other areas of life, too. Any task that seems formidable can be made easier if broken into chunks. Changing the environment can change your perspective.
What if you are not trying to change your dog’s behavior, but people’s behavior? Does your work involve motivating other people to do their jobs better? Well, take Heath’s and Duhigg’s words to heart. Of course the same rules apply. And here’s one more that can help you to know:
People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than at the starting gate of a shorter one. If your colleagues, or children, are having problems getting from point A to point B, showing them how far they’ve come already can help them feel better about the ultimate goal.
Training is a process that requires measured steps. Rushing will not yield the results you seek. Shoot for small wins, and enjoy the journey.