At first glance, it probably appears that I am in the business of training dogs. It certainly begins there, but that’s really just the beginning. If I want the positive changes in dogs’ behavior to maintain over the long haul-and I do-I am really in the business of training owners. Working directly with owners is where I place much of my focus once I start to see a significant change in their dogs’ behavior. My emphasis is on training owners the proper and effective use of treatments.
I am also in the business of raising a toddler. He’s in the process of learning to use utensils to eat and has nearly mastered the art of using a fork. The other day I gave him a mango seed. I intended for him to pick it up with his hands and eat the meat off of it. He took another approach. He asked for a fork instead and proceeded to struggle by attempting to stab the seed with the dull-edged fork. He finally gave in to the frustration and picked the darn thing up with his hands. That’s when it occurred it me: treatment is no different than a fork. It only works if used properly.
Here’s the problem: “properly” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with dedication or good intentions. My son’s intentions and desires, strong and good, were no different than that of many owners with whom I work. How wonderful it would if a desire or want to do it correctly was enough. Sadly, it’s not…and it gets worse: here is the bad news. We now know from research that if errors are made early on in teaching that the student’s-in this case, the dog’s- behavior suffers. What does that mean for owners? Basically, there is little room for errors early on when teaching a dog a new skill. Unfortunately, isn’t that when we should expect errors…when owners are mastering a new skill as well? That paints a pretty grim picture, doesn’t it?!
But, there’s hope! No need to give up just yet! There is a way around all of this. Actually, there are several ways around it. Early on in training, I like to give near-perfect instruction to a dog either from me or another experienced trainer. Once the dog’s behavior is relatively strong, I then teach the owner how to implement the same procedure I have been using. Because, it is no longer early on in the dog’s training, errors that owners make will not disrupt the dog’s learning. In my experience, the dog’s behavior maintains despite errors owners may make. Soon enough owners catch on and are able to maintain their dog’s behavior. Pretty cool, huh?! This may not be needed in all cases, but it is helpful in situations when treatments are complex and are not easy to implement. Let’s face it, I am really asking a lot from owners. I would struggle if I were sprung into another person’s job. Much less perform at a high level immediately. Why would we ask owners to do the same?
So, I say, go for it son and to the many owners with whom I consult…go for it! Take that fork and start stabbing. Only this time, hold it just so and aim for the penne pasta, not the mango seed!