Begin... at the beginning!
‘We’ve tried everything… nothing works’…
Boy if I’d had a quid for every time someone said this to me… I’d be writing this from a luxury yacht somewhere sunny where the sea sparkles an impossible blue… where was I again… Ah yes. No you haven’t. When people tell me they’ve tried everything, the truth of the matter is in fact that they have tried many things, but: 7/ Inconsistently
6/ Incorrect technique
5/ Not for anywhere near long enough
4/ With wildly inaccurate expectations
3/ Without understanding what drives the behaviour
2/ Without understanding why this method works And.. drum roll please… 1/ They’re NEVER starting at the beginning. They are always starting in the middle or even in some cases, near the end. To quote Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” I realise this sounds bleedin’ obvious, but this really is the case and it is why so many attempts at training and behaviour modification fail. Because even if you get your technique right, if you are consistent, if you understand what is driving the behaviour you don’t like, and why your method works… if you start in the middle it just won’t work! The reason this happens is that people don’t realise where the beginning actually is.
Let’s use a dog pulls on the lead on a walk as an example; then they believe that ‘on a walk’ is the beginning of the problem, start there. (For walk, read ‘achieve a set distance, loop, or route, of between 30 minutes to an hour’). Immediately this will fail. They try it several times, each time it fails, ‘ugh, that method doesn’t work’.
But ‘on a walk’ isn’t the start of the process at all, a walk is pretty near the end!
Lets look at what a walk entails for your dog, a successful, happy, fun walk that is beneficial to you both.
Your dog must;
· Be responsive to you
· Walk on a loose lead
· Be able to ignore distractions
· Be confident with traffic, people, other animals around
· Be free from pain or discomfort
· Be familiar with the lead, collar and harness and not associate them with pain/discomfort
· Capable of perceiving reward (taking a treat and enjoying it or playing with a toy and enjoying that)
Most dogs who are a pain in the backside to walk, are so because they are having an issue with one or more of those requirements.
On top of this many have now habitually associated walks with a set of behaviours that make them, not-fun. Some dogs will start actively looking for things to react to the moment you set out, some will be anticipating pain the moment the kit goes on, some will have switched off their ears the second you open the front door, determined to drag you round the route as fast as possible. The beginning in this example, is at home, in an environment where the dog can listen to you, is responsive, can accept a treat or a game with a toy and genuinely find that reinforcing, so that you can teach them where they ought to walk in relation to you. If there is a chance that the dog is in pain, then the beginning is at the vets for a pain medication trial or a referral to a physio to see what the problem is, and resolving that pain or fear of pain, and then the next step is in the house, teaching the dog to walk beside you. Once you have a dog who can listen to you, can walk beside you, then you can venture past the front door and work on that engagement out front. Only when your dog can listen and respond to you, should you move away from the front door, because if they can’t listen there… why on earth would they be any better half a mile away? Walking nicely on the lead through a variety of environments, remaining attentive to the human actually requires quite a lot of training, and lots of positive association between owner and dog. This is Doggy University Masters Degree level stuff, not Puppy Playschool! The same approach can be applied to all manner of training and behaviour issues – identify where the beginning actually is! If your dog is worried about visitors ringing the bell and entering the house, then the beginning is NOT greeting visitors at the front door! The beginning is probably allowing the dog (on a lead) to see an already seated visitor who is not looking at them or speaking to them, on the far side of the living room, whilst mum feeds a few treats. The dog can be in another room with someone whilst the visitor enters, the visitor is let in without them ringing the bell, and moves to leave after the dog has been removed from the room. Or perhaps it is getting a new doorbell and pairing that with treats in the dogs bed until the bell becomes a cue ‘get in your bed’… at the same time, avoiding anyone ringing the bell and having the dog in another room whenever the door is answered. For some dogs both these techniques can be deployed, to change the meaning of the bell cue AND counter condition to ‘stranger in the house’. If your dog hates the car – the beginning is not the fast lane of the M6. If your dog is scared of the groomers, then an hour of pampering at Fluff n Wuff is not where you start. It isn’t just that we struggle to identify where the beginning is, although that can be difficult in some cases. It is also that, honestly, it can be very boring, it isn’t what we want to be doing. It requires more effort and thought and takes more time. Sometimes we are not in a position to start at the beginning – as an example, I can’t put my lurcher in the car. He is over aroused by the environment where the car has to be at the front of the house (not an issue for his walks, we exit via the back and avoid that area) so I cannot begin with him working calmly around the outside of the car. My starting point would be… build a driveway or move house but as those are not currently options, he doesn't go in the car! However sometimes that feeling isn’t really accurate – if you’re training a dog for a client and they believe you should be doing this outside the house, it is your job to tell them that’s not where you begin. If you are a dog walker offering training, ditto – you must begin at the beginning or you cannot offer that service. It is then their choice to hire you to do it properly or, not hire you. Sometimes we have just built up mental blocks about why we can’t start at the beginning or we’ve got stuck on having to begin somewhere in the middle, and I wish I knew the answer to that, all I can suggest is be honest with yourself and open to alternatives. Perhaps ask a friend to double check your thinking and help you plan! This of course leads me on to why quick fix aversive solutions to simply ‘stop’ behaviours we don’t want are so very seductive and of course, very easy to make sexy, attractive social media video content, but that is a subject for another blog! A final thought… your dogs training and behaviour can be thought of as a building. Are you putting up a rock solid building with secure foundations… or is it a wibbly-wobbly shaky house of cards, thrown up on sand, in an earth-quake zone?