…Or when you decide to start with the mother of all dragons!
I read an article this morning, a parable really, that addresses the common practice of talking about change, promoting it even, while running scared from the reality of it. There’s a similar phenomenon seen in dog training where a handler says she wants her dog’s behavior to change. This handler attends classes to promote change. She fights traffic to get to this class after work. She pays for this class. While in class, she listens carefully to what her instructor says. Then, while waiting her turn, or coming or going from the building, this handler reverts instantly to gripping the end of her leash, hanging on tight, and tolerating all of the problem behaviors she just spent an hour learning how to address. And then she wonders why nothing ever changes.
Behavior changes slowly. Habits are easily entrenched, but hard to fill in or reroute. There is no magic formula. To change behavior we all must make small changes. Work with new “baby” behaviors patiently and consistently. You have to nurture a future habit until it becomes fixed. Then you’re ready to make the next change, and so on.
This is hard however. First, you have to know where you want to go with your behavior issue, whether its your dog’s or your own. After all, a fun trick that you once taught your dog may turn into a “zombie” problem that keeps rising from the extinguished behavior pile to haunt your obedience routine, or simply piss off guests, if you didn’t look ahead at what your long term expectations really were. For example, I have a “rewind” trick that now rises up in finishes and other exercises from time to time–I find it funny, but it could really upset a trainer with more exacting standards. I have another trick where my dog peeks through my legs. I like it, but not all guests are amused and my agility instructor can’t stand it!
It is also hard because we don’t break things down and think small enough. For example, teaching “stays.” Each session I ask students to start teaching “stay” first by teaching the dog to resist following a treat when the handler moves their hand away from the dog. Then, I’ll have them simply build some time into their dog’s sit: one one thousand, treat. Then move to: one one thousand, two one thousand and treat. Now build this up to a solid 5 seconds. At this point, I’ll ask them to add the actual word, “stay”, but go back to counting one one thousand, the hold period that your puppy has already mastered (and not a 5 minute stay), mark and treat, then release. Now build up to five seconds slowly before stepping away–and when you do, lower the time held.
Invariably, students ask their puppy, who just acquired the concept of sit, to stay as they walk out to the end of the leash. Of course the puppy follows, bouncing along beside them happily–or she might wander off to sniff the puppy next to her. The student then calls and scolds the puppy (breaking down the puppy’s nascent heel and recall) and drags him back to try again–hopefully I catch each student before this cycle gets too far!
Knowing this, I have to wonder why I still decide I’m going to make a change, like taking up meditation, or eating well, or starting this blog, and then alternate between attempting to create an award-winning site and completely ignoring my page, sometimes for years! I should listen to myself and start small. Baby steps. Write an entry each week (I almost said day, but caught myself). When this is habit, I will grow the behavior. I’m getting better and better at expecting smaller changes from my dogs, maybe I can start expecting less of myself, and getting further in the end.