For over 40 years I have had a few things attached to me everyday. My keys, wallet, money and of course, for over 20 years, the all important cell phone. For 10 years I’ve had a clicker attached to my right pocket. The only place I don’t wear the clicker is when I go “sans dog” (which for me is, not so much). So for the last nine months as I have been going through some physical challenges which kept me from working and training my own dogs (with a clicker), I haven’t used one. Now slowly, I’m back. As I carefully move back into the world, my clicker is the one thing I can’t seem to remember. I take my keys, my money (40 years practice) and of course the all important cell phone (20 years practice), BUT I can’t remember to take the clicker (only 10 years practice). There’s a pattern here.
I’ve been relating this to the dogs and I now “fully” understand how and why our dogs need constant maintenance on their training or more importantly their learning. How many times do we walk into a client’s house after they called about an out-of-control adolescent canine? “Oh you had training?” “Yes, he’s trained, he’s just wild”, they respond. I ask, “have you worked with him since puppy class?” “well no”, “but he’s trained”, is almost always the response. Then they ask Fido to sit about 5-10 times and when he does, sometimes and/or finally, they look to me for reinforcement. Again, I think I see a pattern.
Learning is greatly aided by repetition. Want to remember something, repeat it over and over again until you have it. But when the test is over, how long does it stay, without more repetition. When we teach our dog something and then never practice it, we can’t expect them to still know it months later. Unless we help them keep it fluent, it won’t stick. Behaviors dogs do daily stay active in their lives. Grooming behaviors and special occasion behaviors need to be practiced also. That way if they are needed, the dogs will be rehearsed. At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, they do husbandry work with the animals everyday, so when medical tests and procedures are necessary the animals are already primed to have it be a positive experience. Everyday large dolphins and other animals lay in the arms of trainers and workers dressed in medical uniforms, and rehearse. Train your dog for touch and handling before it is necessary. Then if you find out that you dog doesn’t like it, you have time to help condition him to “love it”, before it’s needed. We really can’t be upset with our dogs for growling at the vet tech when we haven’t worked on vet behavior since before last year’s vet appointment.
Sometimes I get frustrated with my oldest and best trained dog. In reality, she should be frustrated with me. We work on a behavior together, and then I may not work on that one for a while and I get frustrated with her for not remembering when I pull it out of the blue. She should look up at me and say “uh Ma, why do you think they call it practice, and BTW we haven’t for a while. My expectations are high, too high and sometimes I frustrate her. We humans need to be very consistent.
If we work out a behavior together and then she has a subtle injury that interferes, we may not catch it. It’s important to really watch your dog, not getting a known behavior may be a physical issue. If her hips hurt, she may not want to sit, or be on her two back paws for a hug. As my 60lb dog reached the age of 10, we may not be doing as many “high fives” as we used to. Modify behaviors that your dog loves, to keep them appropriate for her age. We do a way cooler “low five” now, and her hips are grateful.
We haven’t played “gimmie dat ball” in a long time. It’s our favorite game. I am unable to play in the big yard, but yesterday I took advantage of the cool weather and played a variation called “gimme dat snake”. It was very easy for me and gave her the chance to play her favorite game and be reminded of all the behaviors we reinforce with that game. It was small, it was safe for me and it kept the learning process processing.
If learned behaviors fail: Make sure your dog still knows it. Practice, practice, practice. (There can be many other reasons, for the sake of this blog, we’ll talk about consistency.)
Check to be sure your dog doesn’t have a health reason or injury causing her not to perform behaviors.
Keep behaviors fluent, be creative with behaviors, tweak for injury or life circumstance (yours or your dogs).
Practice now for what you “may” need in the future. Rehearse vet procedures so your dog is used to them when she goes to the vet.
Build your training foundation now. Learning to go slow, go small, be creative, be flexible and accept change are some of the pillars of positive training. Take advantage of all those chances to keep your dogs on their training schedule, in case life throws you a curve.
BTW, it took only a short time and now the clicker is on again. I may after 10 years, become a left-handed clicker’er, but I’m grateful for learning and grateful for practice.