Clients rarely come to me asking to teach a behaviour. Usually I’m asked to stop behaviours. ‘I want to stop her pulling on the lead’ in comparison to ‘I’d like her to walk next to me’, ‘I want to stop him running off’ rather than ‘I’d like to teach him a good recall’. I’m good at turning the ‘stop’ requests into behaviours that the owners actually want. That’s a huge part of my job. But I wonder if this tendency to ask me to stop behaviours also bleeds into a habit clients have when it comes to actually training their dogs.
I find that when addressing the issues clients have asked me about, that clients regularly wait for the undesirable behaviour to occur (pulling on the lead, for example) before attempting the desirable behaviour that I’m trying to replace it with. The instructions I’ve given and the training plan aim to set both dog and the human client up for success, so using the example of pulling on the lead, I’ll say click as soon as you lift your foot off the ground. Despite this, many clients take a number of steps and only consider clicking as soon as their dog has started to pull on the lead. Now, I understand that a number of things come into this:
1. When learning a new skill, it takes time for your brain to digest what has been told to you when you’re given instructions. A client may still be digesting by the time I’ve got them having a go at the exercise.
3. My explanations may be lacking. If a learner isn’t learning what I want them to, the responsibility of getting them to understand falls onto me. I in no way expect every human I teach to understand the bog standard explanation of behaviours that I offer when we start an exercise. I expect to personalise my explanations and help to individual clients.
2. You need to practice! Even when I go to training with my own dogs, it will take me a few repetitions of an exercise before I’m actually doing everything the instructor has told me to do (or a lot longer if I need to coordinate my whole body for agility!) I expect to give every client 3-5 repetitions of a behaviour before I comment on their handling because a lot of the time they will have sorted out something I might comment on by the time those 3-5 repetitions are over, at which point I can praise them heavily.
4. It’s hard! Dog training is a skill that takes a huge amount of time to become good at. There are a lot of variables at play and it’s hard to control those even as a dog trainer. I don’t expect my clients to perfect these skills instantly.
However, even with the above said, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. Clients who come to me saying things like ‘we’re trying to ace the loose lead walking so that pulling doesn’t become an issue’ make much more of an effort to get their dog doing the right thing before their dog does the wrong thing and subsequently, their dog is wrong a lot less often. I wonder if the mind shift between ‘I want to stop X behaviour’ and ‘I’d like to teach X behaviour’ has an impact on how quickly skills are learnt and if it encourages clients to focus on different parts of the behaviour that they’re training. I know I find that when I’m focusing on what I can reward with my dogs rather than what I want to stop with my dogs, that I have much better sessions with them and see a multitude of reinforceable behaviours rather than undesirable ones.
So, next time you go to your trainer asking for help with a behaviour consider viewing it with a more positive mindset – ‘what desirable behaviour can I replace this undesirable behaviour with?’ – I suspect you’ll have much more success in replacing that undesirable behaviour and you’ll be able to reinforce far more than you do when you’re still focusing on stopping a behaviour.