How many times have you made this mistake: you learn something new and go straight to the fun part. The harder part. How can you push this new skill? What else can you do with it? Aaaaand you conveniently skip right over mastering foundation skills before doing all that.
Sound familiar? Yeah, for me too. I’ve learned many skills that I’ve had to go back and re-learn and master those foundations after the fact. Usually, I would do that after I get myself into trouble or a sticky situation by trying to perform a more advanced skill without having a solid foundation first. And it’s always been harder for me to re-learn and undo those bad habits than it would to have learned the foundation in the first place.
For some aspects of my life, I’ve learned that lesson (it only takes a few times of trying to crochet without a pattern and undoing 3 hours of work before taking the hint); when I want to try something new I watch foundation videos to make sure I start off on the right foot. I ask the experts what skills I need to perfect before I can get to the fun part. I practice until those skills are comfortable before trying to push the boundaries. For other aspects of my life, I’m still in that stage of recognizing I should do that but thinking this time it will be different. (It never is.)
This seems to be a pretty common trait of human learning: pushing boundaries before we’re ready. I see it a lot with my clients, too, where they gloss over critical foundation skills to get to the fun part. Or, gloss over critical foundation skills to get to the part that they think they need. But, here’s the thing. There’s a whole lot more that goes into what you actually need to develop a skill than the skill itself.
A Low-Stakes Example
A few Christmases ago, I wanted to crochet bookmarks for a few friends. I had seen a cute pattern on Pinterest for an animal with a long, flat body and a little 3D head that would pop up out of the top of the book. But, of course, I wanted to make everyone’s favorite animals for their bookmarks instead and there were no bookmark patterns for those.
I had crocheted amigurumi (that’s the fancy term for 3D crochet projects) twice before and kind of knew what made it work. I decided to give it a go and make my own patterns. I already hinted at the result above: I crocheted for hours and unraveled my work several times. I knew how to make a sphere because I had a pattern for that, but what about an animal with a more pyramid-shaped head? What about an oval? I had completely overestimated my abilities because I didn’t actually have the foundation skills; I didn’t know truly why it worked the way it did and I didn’t know enough to be able to break the rules of the patterns I could find.
It took me a lot longer and many more headaches to try to do something I “kind of knew” instead of learning the foundation skills first and then getting to the fun part. I did eventually figure it out, and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write down the pattern for some of these! It will take me a long time once again to figure it out because it was pure trial and error instead of tweaking known rules.
What does this look like in relation to animal behavior?
There are two ways that I see this often come out in relation to pets that we work with:
- Humans trying to speed through their foundation skills, or skip them altogether
- Ignoring the foundation skills the animal needs
Let’s take a look at each of these.
Skipping the human skills
The first often looks similar to my crochet example. The human knows a bit about some of the foundation skills and is itching to get to the fun part, or the part that they think is relevant to their goals. They don’t realize how much more laborious (and in the case of aggressive animals, unsafe) they’re making it by trying to speed through their foundation skills. It’s like a tortoise and hare situation.
Here are some of the foundation skills that humans need to work with their pet who has behavior issues:
- Observation skills
- Understanding of body language for that particular species
- Ability to watch the environment and their pet at the same time
- Ability to react to the pet’s body language within seconds
- Timing for training exercises
- Problem-solving skills
- Ability to respond appropriately to behavior throughout the day, outside of only within a training session
The results are often very different if one of these skills is lacking. When I did in-person sessions my clients would joke about how well-behaved their pets were for me, like their pet was in the principal’s office on their best behavior. The truth was that I had mastered the above foundation skills, which made my results different. Once my clients were proficient in those skills they saw the same results.
Sometimes we see folks skipping the foundation skills because they’re not as exciting (like I did in the above example). Sometimes, though, we see this happening because they don’t quite understand how those skills are relevant to their pet’s behavior modification plan. I get that too; it can be hard to conceptualize some of these concepts without seeing a real-time application.
I see that a lot with learning body language. For those people who understand in theory why it’s important but have a hard time truly visualizing it, I often see a light bulb go off when I start to point out their pet’s body language signals in real-time and then predict what they’re about to do and what the human should do in response. It’s much easier to conceptualize when you see it being put to such a helpful use! If that describes your situation, be sure to ask your consultant to explain what a particular skill is used for and to demonstrate it.
Skipping the pet skills
In this week’s podcast episode, Kathy Sdao talked about the importance of eating as the first behavior. It’s hard to train using food if we have a pet who doesn’t reliably eat treats! Often when I see folks skipping pet skills, it’s the skills like this that we don’t even think about teaching. The behaviors that we often take for granted, like eating, sleeping, relaxing, sniffing, and mobility. We’re focused too much on the end goal behavior and forget that there’s a whole host of mechanics- aka other behaviors- that make up that end goal.
This is why here at Pet Harmony we focus on enrichment first when we meet with a new client. Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs and those needs provide the foundation on which the rest of the plan is built. For example, if we have a pet who has trouble sleeping they’re not going to learn and retain information very well. We’re going to work much harder to teach basic skills to that animal than to one who is well-rested. The same goes for a pet who has an upset stomach, or is wired with too much energy, or who doesn’t feel safe in the training environment. Meeting needs is the ultimate foundation.
How do I make sure I don’t miss those foundation skills?
One of the best answers is to ask an expert. They should know what skills go into a particular exercise, from training mechanics to beyond. But if that’s not currently in your cards, think about the mechanics that go into a particular exercise or behavior with the determination of a toddler.
Goal: I want my dog to calmly look at another dog and look back at me for a treat on a walk instead of barking.
To take a treat, they have to reliably eat in that environment.
To reliably eat in that environment, they have to reliably eat that treat period.
To reliably eat in that environment, they have to feel comfortable enough to be able to eat.
To feel comfortable in that environment, they should have an escape route.
To have an escape route that works, they need to have practiced the escape route ahead of time in an environment where they’re comfortable enough to learn a new skill.
To practice the escape route, we need to identify an environment that they are comfortable in.
To identify an environment they are comfortable in, we need to be able to see signs of stress and signs of comfort.
To see signs of stress, the dog needs to be comfortable at some point in time so we can see a difference between stress and comfortable.
For the dog to be comfortable at some point, they need to be able to relax.
See how many other behaviors go into that one end goal? And that’s just looking at one piece of that goal! We could do the same thing with the other behaviors included in that sentence: calmly looking at another dog, looking back at the handler, and the handler being able to dispense the treat.
This is why asking an expert is easier; we’re more proficient at doing all of this.
- Take a close look at a behavior or skill you’re trying to teach your pet.
- If you’re getting stuck, identify where you’re getting stuck. Then, consider all of the foundation skills and behaviors that make up your goal behavior. Is there one that could use some sprucing up?
- Dive into that foundation skill and focus on applying it in easier situations. When that feels comfortable, then try applying it to the situation you’re stuck on.
- Is that situation getting less sticky? If so, great! Continue on that vein. If not, go back to the drawing board.
- If that all sounds like a heck of a lot of work, work with a professional. We work with clients all over the world. Check out our services here.