I wrote this article some years ago and it popped into my mind again today. I’ve been thinking about all the things I want to teach Cailie, our now 7 month old Australian Shepherd.
We’ve focused mostly on tricks (fun for her, fun for me!) and family manners – the myriad of things a dog needs to know to co-exist peacefully in our home (such as Leave It, Trade, Wait at the Door, Impulse Control, etc.).
Here were my thoughts four years ago. They’re as true today as they were then:
“As I was driving and listening to a talk radio show this week, the guest speaker made a comment about politics in general, he said,
“It’s about the Art of Possible, not the Art of Perfect.”
My mind went immediately to dog training and I made the observation that the statement was certainly very true for every client and every dog I’ve ever had in class. And true, in fact, for me too.
Clients come to us for a variety of reasons, but most often because they want their dog to stop displaying some unwanted behavior (chewing a rug, jumping on a visitor, pulling on leash, etc.). They’d like their dog’s behavior to be “perfect.”
But how do you define perfect?
Even if you’re able to give a reasonably apt description of perfect, is perfection really attainable?
When I begin working on something specific that I want my own dog, Willow, to learn, I do have a goal for the finished behavior. Operative word: finished. However, there may be a long line of steps and days, weeks or months of learning to make it toward the end goal…that finished behavior.
For dogs and people too, there are 4 stages of learning:
Acquisition: This is the teaching stage where the dog is beginning to acquire the ability to perform the behavior, for instance a Sit. The dog may not sit every time, but with consistent reinforcement, that Sit will become close to fluent.
Fluency: This is the stage where the dog becomes really good at performing the Sit. The dog will easily Sit when you give the Sit cue. The cue could be a word, a hand signal or some other environmental signal.
Generalization: This is the stage where you need to take your training on the road. You need to help your dog learn to Sit (by continuing to reinforce that behavior) inside your home, outside on the porch, in your yard, at a friend’s house, in the presence of another dog, etc. You train in a variety of places. In the midst of a variety of distractions, never proceeding too fast, because you want your dog to get it right. Getting “it right” means he’ll earn reinforcement (preferably a yummy piece of food). Reinforcement increases the likelihood that the Sit will happen again…and again.
Automatic/Maintenance: In this fourth stage of learning, the dog has practiced the Sit so many times and in so many places and has been reinforced for performing the Sit so many times that it becomes automatic. However, in order to keep the behavior strong, you’ll still need to periodically reinforce the Sit. Any learned skill without practice or reinforcement will vanish. I know. I used to play the mandolin reasonably well. Not any longer. I haven’t practiced.
One thing I’m sure of is that whatever you want your dog “to do,” I’m reasonably sure you can get there if you have a realistic goal in mind and you actually pick up the leash and get started.
If you need help, we’re here for you with a variety of ways to help you and your dog. Whether you’re local to each of our locations (Florida, Mississippi and Georgia) and choose in-home training or located far from us, there’s the ability to for us to help you train your dog with virtual training. Technology allows us the ability to be very effective with long distance training. We promise we’ll do our best to make it effective and FUN for you & your dog.
Perfection may not be fully attainable, but learning IS possible. Ah yes, the Art of Possible.”
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a Dogbiz Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. and Europe. www.coldnosecollege.com