Change is hard.

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

The internet is full of simple recipes to follow to help people change their dog’s behavior. However, as the great trainer Bob Bailey says, “Simple is not easy.”

“No plan survives an audience.”

When you accurately follow instructions with technology it usually performs as expected. Living creatures aren’t like that. You know what ‘should’ work and you do it. Then when something completely unexpected occurs, you’re left wondering what just happened and what you should do about it.

We’re inconsistent.

Our dogs live with us in our homes, not separated in cages or enclosures only seeing us for organised training sessions. They see us at our most and least focused; most and least patient; most and least ‘insert emotion here’. They also might see emotions and behaviours we save just for home – extreme tiredness, stress, anger, impatience, relaxation, high energy levels.

From the moment dogs enter our homes, their new environment starts to affect them. Their behavior impacts on the environment too, and they learn that it’s inconsistent.

Here we are trying to run a household; go to work; manage human relationships; manage finances; have some rest and relaxation; and train our dogs. Here they are trying to get enough food; exercise; attention; enjoyment; and work out what is going on in their new world.

Dogs are not toys and we are not point-and-click remote controllers.

Any training system which tells you it’s quick and easy isn’t reminding you of that. Nor is it pointing out that important stuff  is usually quite (very) hard work, laced with generous amounts of failure.

...and that should be okay...except that in our point-and-shoot-quick-fix-instant-gratification-everything-is-a-priority-and-must-be-done-yesterday world, we’ve forgotten it.

Consistently using positive reinforcement techniques is HARD WORK!

There. I said it. The idea is simple. The application is not.

You have to think from the learner’s perspective. You have to plan what you want to achieve, how to achieve it and what to do if things go wrong. You have to take responsibility. You have to control your temper. You have to forgive mistakes (your own and your learner’s). You have to reflect on mistakes and use the information to adjust your training. You have to work with, not against your learner.

It’s challenging and often doesn’t feel very positive or very reinforcing.

Losing weight; giving up smoking; saving money for a holiday; having a child etc can all feel the same way, but they’re rather important and worth doing too.

Life happens

Life is full of mishaps, misadventures, difficulties and frustrations.

The way we live places restrictions on dogs. They wear collars, leashes and harnesses, sleep in crates and live behind fences. They have to share their world with busy, stressed out people, noisy vehicles, animals which don’t always like them etc. They have to eat what we provide, live where we tell them, get the exercise and play the games we allow. In return, they do things which upset our lives and cost us money. From the beginning, there is lots of potential for unpleasantness in their lives and in ours.

Potential is just the start point. It doesn’t have to end there.

Dogs are dogs. We are people. They rely on us to change what we do before they will change what they do.

We can tip the balance in two ways. Limit the unpleasantness we add. Increase the pleasantness we add.

We can try to set our dogs up to succeed and train as positively as possible. We can try to relate to other people (including ourselves) as positively as possible. We can try to live our lives as positively as possible.

And every time we fall down into that hole of failure, frustration, fatigue, guilt, shame or blame, (because we still will!) we can use what we’ve learned to make sure we start climbing right on out of there again.

Positive reinforcement isn’t just a training technique. It’s a philosophy.

I teach it, encourage the use of it and constantly strive to use it because it has no limits. It isn’t just something you do with dogs. It is something you can use across every situation – on your own, or with other people or animals.

Everyone is always doing their best, including you.

However, with knowledge, support and practice we can make our best better!
Let’s do that!

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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


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