Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Light Bulb Moment

Obi with his best new "BFF,"
my friend Betty's foster dog, Dancer
If I had to single out one thing that got me hooked on dog training (aside from the general awesomeness of dogs themselves, of course) it would be the "light bulb" moment. This is the instant that a dog actually understands what you're asking him to do. He's no longer just following the treat in your hand or desperately throwing out behaviors to "guess" what you actually want from him; he knows. It really doesn't get more exciting than that and you don't have to be a dog trainer to know the feeling I'm referring to. To some extent I believe that half of the excitement for many people is simply realizing that yes, your dog is capable of learning after all!

Everyone is happy when the light bulb in your pet's cute little head is doing more than just collecting dust. The dog gets praise, the trainer (if there is one) gets praise, and the owner is happy with his/her choice of training methods. Unfortunately, things get much trickier when that light bulb merely flickers.

There comes a point when Dog and Owner pretty much switch roles. During training, your dog will desperately try to figure out what you are asking so that he can get a reward. He may follow a treat in your hand or try to offer behaviors that worked in the past. If things get too frustrating, he might even give up.

People do this too.

The Light Bulb Moment is a very thrilling and desirable reward to us humans. We want to see our dogs learn something new. We want to see our dogs become obedient, pleasant companions. Any moment when we can see very obvious progress is a happy and reinforcing moment for us. So, if we've worked toward a particular behavior (or set of behaviors) and had no obvious progress, we become frustrated and less consistent. We start grasping at different ways to make it work. We want to force that light bulb moment to happen.

The problem arises when this moment doesn't actually exist.

Spoiled by all the instances in the past when we saw our dogs excel and grasp new lessons fairly quickly, we tend to forget that some goals are much more difficult to achieve and that our dogs are not robots. Sometimes the lesson we are teaching isn't a simple shift in body position such as "sit" but requires changing actual parts of the dog's demeanor or mindset. If your male dog hates other male dogs then you've got a lot more working against you than you did when he just needed to learn how to sit or roll over. You're no longer asking him to simply do something so that he can get a reward. You're asking him to stop feeling a certain way. Similarly, if your dog is snappy around small children, then there isn't going to be a single magical instant when she suddenly decides that children are the best things ever. Scenarios like this are usually tied to feelings such as fear, insecurity, or lack of proper socialization. In many cases, you're also up against genetics. You can't physically "correct" a dog into being less afraid, more confident, or better socialized. You certainly can't correct an animal's breeding with a swift kick or a prong collar.

There isn't a product you can buy or a trainer you can hire who can truly step in and fix issues like this overnight. The closest you might ever get to an "instant fix" is a trainer or product that causes your pet so much fear, pain, and/or discomfort that the behavior becomes temporarily suppressed. (Beware the trainer who guarantees a quick fix and throws around the word "respect" all too often. Many dog lovers don't realize this, and I'll go to my grave trying to get them to, but "respect" in the canine world has just become another word for "fear." If you don't believe me, have a very good look at a dog in the hands of someone teaching it respect and tell me the difference between that animal's body language and the body language of one that is just plain scared or nervous.)

It takes time.

No one wants to hear those words, but there they are. Not only does it take that horrible commodity called time, but it takes the power of patience and the (eventual) magic of consistency. These things all tie together to create a training and management plan that does have the potential to turn around an aggressive, reactive, shy, or fearful dog. If you're constantly looking for the "light bulb moment" you'll almost certainly become impatient and inconsistent. Just like your dog throwing out random behaviors trying to figure out what will work, you'll do the same until you become too frustrated to even try anymore. 

The dog afraid of everything isn't going to wake up tomorrow afraid of nothing until it has awakened many, many mornings afraid of a little less.

Sometimes behavior modification happens so gradually that you don't even notice the improvement. This is why management is such an important part of the equation when dealing with tougher issues. If you can't, from the start, create a safe environment for one of these "more difficult" dogs, then you've already lost the battle. For instance, an unsocialized dog needs an enormous number of positive experiences versus negative ones. Every negative experience involving the object of its fear and/or aggression is a major setback. This is one of the hurdles you would have to be prepared to deal with for the long term. Having unrealistic expectations and simply holding out for instant gratification would easily hinder any real progress.  If you're constantly looking for the one thing that will quickly "cure" the problem, then your focus is not going to be on proper management, technique, or consistency.

My goal as a trainer is to help teach people how dogs really perceive the world around them and how to communicate with them in a way that is going to benefit everyone involved. There have been a few moments recently that really made me want to give up on sharing these ideas with others. There were times when I felt that force-based training would always have such a strong hold on us ( thanks in part to sneaky TV editing and faulty research of the past) that it's pointless to even try to share what is now known to be scientific, proven, factual dog psychology. Thankfully, it finally occurred to me that I have been falling into the Light Bulb trap myself. There won't be a day when I wake up to a world of fully-enlightened, progressive dog owners and trainers. It's going to be one person at a time, one dog at a time, and the only way to ever make even the tiniest difference is to keep writing, keep training, keep learning, and keep networking with like-minded people. Communication and education are absolutely the key and I am forever grateful to those who take the time to read my posts or listen to me ramble even when they don't completely agree. Slowly and steadily we will make a difference. (Though, if the universe wants to prove me wrong I'm ok with waking up tomorrow to that world full of enlightened people too.)