Smaller Steps Make for Faster Progress: Splitting for Pets

I recently met with the cutest new puppy, Maddie, and her family. Maddie’s mom told me that she was having trouble teaching their new puppy some basic manners. During their training sessions Maddie would get frustrated, grumble, and walk away. That made it frustrating for the humans, too. 

I asked her mom to show me what she was doing and quickly discovered the problem: the steps were too big. I offered to work with Maddie and described the process I was using called “splitting”.  Maddie made quick progress and was learning enthusiastically. Her mom exclaimed:

“Ohhh, I was expecting too much!” 

Maddie’s mom started working with her again– this time splitting the steps– and Maddie learned enthusiastically for her as well. Hooray for Maddie and her family!

Splitting is the process of taking a task or larger step and breaking it down into smaller steps. It’s like teaching a child how to read: first we teach the letters, then how the letters sound together, then how to sound out parts of the word, then the whole word and so on. If we started teaching the word as a whole first the child would likely get frustrated and give up. We need to split it into smaller steps. 

Here’s an example of splitting while teaching a go-to-your-bed-and-lie-down behavior:

  1. Look at the bed 
  2. Lean towards the bed
  3. Take one step towards the bed
  4. Take two steps towards the bed, 3 steps,etc.
  5. Put one foot on the bed
  6. Put two feet on the bed, then 3, then 4
  7. Turn head over left shoulder
  8. Turn over left shoulder until facing human
  9. Bend elbows
  10. Lie down on bed

Even within this example there are several times that I lumped smaller steps together for the sake of convenience (which is usually why we lump instead of split in the first place!) However, you get the picture. There are a lot of steps that go into that single lie-down-on-bed behavior and we can and usually should be reinforcing our pet every step of the way. 

Splitting allows us to create easier wins for our learners (all species included!) That means less frustration and more success. Splitting also makes it easier for us to have a higher rate of reinforcement (aka how frequently we’re treating) which can do things like speed up learning, boost confidence, and improve our relationship. Splitting provides us and our pets with a ton of benefits. 

If there are so many benefits then why don’t we do it more? Well, splitting is a skill and like every skill we need to learn how to do it and practice it to become more efficient. Also, not only is it a skill that many people have yet to acquire, but it’s also a process that can seem counterintuitive. We need to take smaller steps to reach our goal faster? That doesn’t sound right. But, as we saw with Maddie, splitting into smaller steps usually does help us reach our goal faster. It’s like the old saying goes…

Slow and steady wins the race!

So the next time you and your pet are stuck take a moment and ask yourself, “How can I split this step?” Your pet will thank you for it! 

Now what?

  • Practice conceptualizing splitting. A good way to do this is to watch a video of an animal performing some behavior. Slow the video down and watch it frame-by-frame if needed. Write down each step the animal takes to perform the behavior; essentially, each new thing the animal does in each frame. If you’re looking for an extra challenge try to watch the muscles contract before the animal moves! Now that’s some serious splitting.
  • Consider a behavior you would like to teach your pet. Write down each step your pet will need to take to perform the behavior. 
  • With your steps in hand, start teaching your pet the new behavior and treat each step along the way. Phase out treats as your pet becomes proficient at performing the smaller steps. Did your pet learn the behavior faster when you treated for each step along the way? Were you and your pet more or less frustrated? Were there times that you had written down smaller steps than your pet needed? 

Happy training!


P.S. Next week we’re going to look at applying this concept to humans!