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When I’m giving a client a new activity, I always tell them to practice first in scenarios where they’ll be more successful. For example, practicing loose leash walking or the flight cue inside. Or Look at That or a greeting strangers protocol with faux triggers or people they know. Every now and then, someone will come back to me with:
I tried what you said to do and it didn’t work.
After some sleuthing, we sometimes find that the problem is that they tried to use it in a more difficult situation before they or their pet were ready. That happens to all of us (myself included!) at some point! But, if we go straight to testing without practicing, we usually fail the test.
Practice makes perfect
This cliche applies to behavior modification: practice makes perfect. Well, as close to perfect as we can expect from a living, breathing individual with free will. The situations in which we want to use our pet’s skills are usually higher stress situations, either due to excitement or distress. I liken this to a “test”, where you’re expected to perform skills you’ve been learning in a higher stress situation. But the only way to do well in that type of situation is to practice a lot in easier scenarios that gradually build in difficulty.
Imagine we plucked someone off the street, told them the basics of brain surgery, and then asked them to perform brain surgery on someone. Show of hands of who’d like that person to operate on them? That’s a hell no from me! I want someone who’s gone through school, practiced on cadavers, and has operated on a bunch of people before me. I want someone who’s practiced.
Teaching our pets something once or twice and then asking them to perform it in a high-stress situation is like asking someone we’ve plucked off the street to perform brain surgery. It’s just not going to go well. And, if through luck it does, it’s not going to be predictably replicable. We need to practice in easier situations that gradually build in difficulty in order for them to succeed.
What do easier situations look like?
This will be different depending on the skill or maladaptive behavior we’re talking about and where the pet is in their learning journey. In general, easier situations can look like something as simple as you and your pet training in your living room without anyone else around or it can look like a watered-down version of the situation you’re working up to. You have a lot of options when it comes to an easier situation. In general, choose a scenario where you’re pretty sure your pet will be successful.
Keep in mind that “easier” is subjective, and is based on current skills. Calculus is easy for someone with a Ph.D. in math but it’s hard for a 3rd grader. Staying still is hard for a puppy but is easy for a service dog. The goal is to practice in situations that gradually increase in difficulty but for each step to still be easy for your pet’s current skill level.
- Determine what an easier situation looks like for a skill you’re trying to teach.
- Start practicing! If your pet is doing well, keep practicing. If they’re not doing well in that situation, that means it’s currently too difficult for them. Go back to the drawing board to figure out what would be easier for them and try again.