Sunday, February 13, 2011

Changing Behavior: Baby Steps

Hopefully recent posts have helped steer you away from labeling your dog (or partner or anyone!), and you are now thinking in terms of specific behaviors that you would like changed. How do we do that?? And how do we do it with a species that doesn't even speak the same language (I am talking about dogs -- not members of the opposite sex)??!

I believe the first step is to be very clear and specific about the behavior we want to change. It is not enough to say, "I want my dog to be more outgoing and friendly" because that really does not offer enough information to suggest needed changes.

We need specificity -- "I want my dog to approach strange people with a wagging tail" or "I want my dog to be silent when approached by a strange person".

I intentionally used these two goal statements to illustrate a very important point -- goals must be realistic. We must honestly and realistically set goals -- not based on our own magical thinking -- but on the realities of our training abilities and the dog's hard wiring. Not all dogs love all people -- that is perfectly okay -- but it does mean the goals need to be individualized.

All new parents have an image in their head of their perfect child, who will grow up to be the best and most amazing person ever! This idealized view quickly collides with reality, and (usually) parents learn to love and accept the child they have -- but they secretly grieve for the idealized child that isn't.

It doesn't make anyone "bad" to admit that what we imagined in our head isn't reality, and it is a necessary step for all of us in all of our relationships. I still wish my daughter would have played college basketball and gone to vet school but darn it anyway -- she thinks differently about her life than I do!

Our dogs are the same -- they will not be the ideal dog we envisioned in our head. The first training challenge for all of us is wrapping our minds around the fact that magical thinking doesn't really work, and we have to let go of the disappointment and train the dog that is -- not the perfect one in our head.

So, we look realistically at the dog and at ourselves, and set a specific, realistic goal that is measurable. In other words, I can tell you how I will know when I have achieved the goal.

Some people have the idea that I have perfect dogs -- I don't. I want to share an example of something I wish would change -- but I know it is unrealistic and so I don't even bother. When Cadi runs agility she barks basically the whole time -- it drives me nuts. I wish she would just SHUT UP and pay attention but she is having fun and so she barks about it -- ugh...

Could I train that barking away? Maybe -- but it would take a lot and the truth is that the barking is just Cadi's natural exuberance leaking all over the place, as usual. Making her be quiet while she is in high drive would be asking a lot -- probably more than I should ask, and so I just live with her LOUD agility runs.

You must choose your battles, honoring the dog that is -- not the perfect one in your head. And sometimes the one that needs to adjust is YOU -- so maybe I need ear plugs :)

So, you have a goal -- it is realistic, specific, and measurable -- excellent! Now what? Here is what needs to happen: Break that end behavior (i.e., your goal) into the smallest pieces and start training in a series of very tiny steps, not moving forward to the next one until the place you are is perfect.

I want Zoey to be in the close presence of larger (non-berner) dogs and be able to stay relaxed and calm as determined by her behavior. I believe this is realistic and specific, and that I will know when I have achieved it.

Imagine there is a large dog in the park -- I will not simply walk Zoey up to it so she can see there is nothing to be concerned about -- that is a "DUH" training tactic. Instead, I will start with the smallest of steps -- I will stay far away and every time Zoey looks at the large dog I will click/treat. I will make sure to be far enough away that I am not reinforcing anxiety but rather reinforcing calm looks at the large dog.

And that will be it for that session and maybe even a few more.

Over time, I will take the smallest of incremental steps, always making sure each one is basically perfect before stepping gently to the next one. If she "fails" at a step, I will know the failure is mine -- because I pushed her too quickly.

Every journey - or goal -- is made up of small steps that must be accomplished before we move on. My college education took over 13 years -- but that Ph.D. was earned one class session at a time, one assignment at a time. If we keep our gaze only on the end result, we risk discouragement -- and we risk skipping important steps.

So we have to have a dual vision -- we need to clearly have the end result in our head but the focus needs to be on the steps that are required to get there. And our progress on those steps needs to be slow and methodical, ensuring perfection in the pieces so that the final product is a good one.

I am a big fan of schedules, lists, and charts to keep me focused on what needs to happen right now in order to achieve a goal. It is easy for me to get lost in all my goals, and I have found that it helps me to consciously and intentionally create the baby steps along the way.

I hope that you have lofty goals -- and tiny, realistic steps so that you can get there. And I hope that you are having an excellent weekend plotting fun things for Valentine's Day...

No comments:

Post a Comment