There are a lot of factors that go into how successful a behavior modification program is. Some of those factors are uncontrollable: genetics, certain things in the environment (i.e. city-living is always going to be louder than rural living), age, etc. Some of those factors are controlled by your behavior consultant: science-based, empathetic, ethical training techniques, splitting steps down small enough for both you and your pet to be successful, etc. And then there are those factors that are controlled by you, the pet parent: communicating successes and hardships with your consultant, practicing the exercises, managing stress and unwanted behaviors, etc.
There’s one pet parent factor in particular that I want to talk about today: cherry picking parts of your behavior modification plan. What I mean by that is following some parts of your behavior plan but not all of them. Let’s dive into why it happens and why it’s so detrimental.
Why Cherry Picking Your Plan is Detrimental
Cherry picking parts of your plan and ignoring other parts is detrimental to your progress. Yes, you can still make progress this way. Yes, sometimes you can even reach your goals this way. However, it’s probably going to be slower than it could be if you followed all parts of your plan. If the behavior modification journey already typically takes several months, why would you risk adding more time onto it?
It may also not be possible to reach your goals if you’re cherry picking. For example, if you want your pet to stop counter surfing but you keep leaving food on your counter while you’re not home and your pet is loose, you’re not going to reach your goal. Your pet could have an amazing stationing (go to a spot and hang out there) behavior when you’re cooking, an amazing “off” cue, and other foraging opportunities. You’re still not going to reach your goal without that particular management component.
Because there are so many factors that go into behavior, we usually need to address several factors to be successful. Think about it this way: all of those factors are like an orchestra that comes together to create one end result. All of the factors of behavior come together to create one end result, too. Now, if our orchestra is practicing and we improve the woodwinds, brass, and percussion, but completely ignore the strings, the end result isn’t going to be the same as if we improved each section. We can’t cherry pick and expect the end result to be the same.
Why Cherry Picking Happens
I see cherry picking happen for a lot of reasons:
- Not knowing what a recommendation is for, does, or why it’s important
- Not knowing how to do or implement that recommendation
- Not seeing the recommendation work, including not knowing how to troubleshoot it to make it work better
- The consultant put in too many recommendations at one time
- Forgetting a part of the plan
- Old habits– and concepts– die hard
I’m probably missing a few but those are the most common reasons I see when speaking with my clients. Almost all of these merit an entire blog post to themselves, but let’s briefly explore each and talk about solutions.
Not knowing what a recommendation is for, does, or why it’s important
This one is all about buy-in. Some people need to know why they’re doing something before they’ll do it. There are plenty of times that that’s applied to me, too! If you don’t know (or remember) why you’re supposed to do something or do it in a particular way, ask your consultant. There’s no shame in asking and, believe me, we’d much rather you ask straight off the bat if you’re not sure why instead of avoiding it for a few weeks.
Not knowing how to do or implement that recommendation
This usually comes down to a break-down in communication when you’re given instructions (or can come from people skipping ahead in their plan instead of following instructions as they were relayed). An example of this is when a consultant might say “separate your dogs with baby gates and perform this exercise on either side of the gate” and you have an open-floor plan. Even though the instructions seem straightforward, the environment makes it a whole lot trickier to implement. Again, speak with your consultant and relay specifically what you’re having trouble with. The more specific the better!
If the reason you don’t know how to do something or implement it is because you’ve skipped ahead, go back to what your consultant recommended. When we say, “practice this only in your yard or with someone they know for the next 2 weeks”, we really mean it. There may be tweaks that need to be made before the recommendation can work in other capacities and we don’t want you to have to figure that out yourself. Plus, moving too fast is a prime reason for seeing setbacks later in the process.
Not seeing the recommendation work, including not knowing how to troubleshoot it to make it work better
Reasons for a recommendation not working can run the gamut and is going to be based on the individual case. That said, almost all of those reasons can be resolved with some troubleshooting. Before giving up on a recommendation completely, talk to your consultant (noticing a pattern here?) Tell them what you tried, for how long, and send a video if you can! We don’t expect you to know how to troubleshoot something to make it more effective; that’s our job.
The consultant put in too many recommendations at one time
I was incredibly guilty of this when I was a newer consultant, and am still sometimes guilty of this! Your consultant should tailor their recommendations to you as they get to know you better, but in the beginning it can be difficult to find that sweet spot. Tell your consultant when there’s too much, but only after you’ve made sure that it’s not actually because of one of these other reasons. I often hear someone say they don’t have time for one thing in particular, but when we talk more about it we discover that one of these other reasons is the real culprit.
Forgetting a part of the plan
Okay, we’ve all been here, right? Remembering everything you’re supposed to do can be hard, especially in the moment. I see a lot of my clients get around this by posting their training worksheet (which we send to all of our clients after every session) on the fridge. Others opt for post-it notes around the house. The point is that the system needs to work for you. I recently spoke with a client who was cherry picking her plan. When I brought it up, she admitted that she forgot about some parts of it and doesn’t check email frequently and so wasn’t utilizing the training worksheets I was sending. We decided that her taking her own notes would be more effective. No system will work unless it works for you! Think through what systems work for you in your regular, daily life and figure out how to incorporate what you should be working on into those tried and true systems.
Old habits– and concepts– die hard
This one is part buy-in, part forgetting, and part habit. There are so many times that someone has come to me with a history of leash popping their dog and looking for a more LIMA-friendly way to walk. Usually the short-term solution involves them looping their thumb in their belt loop or pocket to keep them from leash popping. Even habits that we want to change die hard! And, sometimes, we have no idea that we’re even doing them. Give yourself some grace as you’re working on changing your own thoughts and behaviors- and remember that your pet is going through the same process. Ask your consultant if they have any recommendations to help you change particular habits (like looping your thumb in your belt loop).
- Take an honest look at your behavior modification and what you’re doing. Does it match up? Even the little details? If yes, awesome! Keep on keeping on.
- If it doesn’t match up, which of the above (or combination thereof) best describes your situation?
- Talk to your consultant about what’s going on, even if you’re not quite sure what the issue is. They’ll be able to help troubleshoot the issue to set you up for success better!