We live in a world where instant results or gratification are the norm. We don’t have to wait for things as much, there are quicker, faster ways of getting what we want. The appeal of a ‘quick fix’ solution is enormous.
We also know that dogs are smart, right? We know they can learn ‘bad’ behaviour really quickly. So why can it take so long to undo unwanted behaviour, or teach them good things that they can ‘perform’ anywhere, any time?
Dogs are learning, all the time. ALL the time – every time they interact with something, a human, a dog, the environment, they are learning about it, and what it means to them. They don’t switch off the learning part of their brain just because you aren’t doing an actual training session.
Let’s take pulling on the lead as an example. It’s very common that puppies are actively taught that pulling on the lead ‘works’. We know that what gets rewarded, gets repeated, it’s how dogs learn after all. So, pup wants to wander over there, the lead tightens, and we typically follow them, because we want them to feel confident about exploring the world. Pup’s association with the lead can easily become that’s its a piece of kit that only ‘works’ when it’s tense. When your (insert breed of choice here) is 8 weeks old, this is not a problem. Fast forwards 12 months and your dog is pulling like a train but now weighs 25kgs. Now you decide that something must be done, or you can wave your shoulder sockets goodbye.
Just stop for a second, and think about how many opportunities your dog has had to ‘practice’ pulling on the lead, where it has succeeded for them. Let’s say that you started lead walking your pup from 12 weeks of age, for two walks a day. He pulls on the lead on every walk, to get to smells, other dogs, people, whatever floats their boat. That’s about 550 walks (more if you walk more often) where your dog is learning that pulling on the lead walks. That number becomes a lot higher if you consider those short lead walks like walking into a vet surgery, shop or groomer….
You try various types of equipment to help curb it. Back fastening harnesses, head collars, choke chains (god forbid). Nothing works (at least for long) so you finally resort to finding a trainer to help you teach him how to walk nicely on lead. You pin all your hopes on the fact that one training session will forever cure your dog of pulling on the lead (because engaging a good quality trainer doesn’t always come cheap) and are disappointed to find that progress can be grindingly slow. Why?
Because when your dog learns a new behaviour, they form a neural pathway for it in the brain. Behaviours that are well practiced can become as resistant to change as the Channel Tunnel. New behaviours are like a toilet roll tube – weak. The process of reforming your steam train into a relaxed dog walking by your side means unpicking the old, unwanted behaviour (working out why they’re doing it and avoiding letting them practice it as much as you can) whilst teaching them a new, highly reinforced behaviour (that walking on a loose lead gets you where you want to be, amongst other things).
Sadly, five minute’s practice of reinforcing (rewarding) your dog to walk by your side isn’t going to compete with those 550 walks where pulling DID work. There are also loads of other factors at play – distractions, health (both yours and the dog’s), stress, time pressures, diet, inconsistent communication between humans, and many more.
This is where a good trainer is worth their weight in gold. They can recommend decent equipment to help you manage the problem while you work on the actual training. You may find that walking your dog on a good front fastening harness solves all your problems, and your dog is now an angel on the lead. It’s perfectly reasonable to forego the training if that’s enough for you.
A good trainer will explain each stage of the training process, and give you a structured plan for how to progress, and how to manage the life factors you are likely to encounter along the way that may interfere with your programme. They will work out what is reinforcing the behaviour (it’s not always what you think) and how to adapt their training to suit some breed differences. They will help you to have realistic goals and expectations, but also be honest about how much input you as the owner needs to give. They will most likely highlight that you will need to be patient!
Take heart – the feeling of sheer bliss when you can eventually walk your dog without needing a bionic arm will make all the hard work seem so, so worth it.