In any program of training and behavioral modification, there is always the risk of asking for too much too soon. This is especially true of dogs and other animals.
In human society, it is often the case that we assume someone has a firm grasp of a subject by successfully answering a few questions correctly. While Cliffs Notes may help us pass a test, it’s a far cry from all we need to write a dissertation.
Cliffs Notes for Dogs
Our dogs use Cliffs Notes too. They often rely on environmental cues to help them figure out what is being asked of them. The room they are in, the sounds they hear, their distance from you, the presence of other people, animals, or objects etc. These are all a part of a dog’s Cliffs Notes that clue them in to what the story’s about and what’s going to happen next. Take them out of this environment too quickly, where their Cliffs Notes no longer apply, and they may act as if they’ve no idea of what you are asking.
One Inch Forward and Five Miles Back
Asking for too much too soon can be especially harmful if we are working with problem behaviors like fear and aggression. Progress with these dogs is often measured in weeks, months, and years, and requires Zen like patience from us in order to bring about successful change.
It’s the Threshold
In any teaching situation, there is a threshold which must not be crossed if you want learning to occur. If you’re in a normal training situation where you are trying to teach a sit-stay, there is a point where exceeding the distance and/or time threshold that the dog is comfortable with will cause them to break the sit-stay. The result being that you will have to decrease the distance and duration back to a level the dog is comfortable with and then make the adjustments in criteria much finer moving forward.
If you’re working with a fearful dog, breaking the thresholds can be even more disastrous and set you back much farther. I know of cases where it took weeks for dogs to even be in the same room with the people that adopted them. These people took great pride in the fact that they finally were able to be in the same room, then they took too big a step. It took some months to be able to get back in the same room. For some dogs, being an inch closer is miles worth of progress. Go too fast and it could be ten miles of backing up.
The same concept applies to dogs showing aggressive behavior. They may be calm when a dog passes within 30 feet of them. But if that is their threshold, 29 ½ feet may be too close but 29 ¾ feet could have worked.
It’s Our Obligation to Figure out Their Thresholds
These thresholds and levels of distractions are not unique to our dogs, we have them too. We all have a personal space that if violated makes us uncomfortable. We all have a finite amount of distractions that we can deal with and still learn. And we all have felt the frustration of finding out that we didn’t know quite as much as we thought we did about something. Knowing these things should make it easier to empathize with our dogs in the learning environment. Using patience and our observational skills, we should know exactly where our dog’s thresholds are.
Small Moves Make for Better Learning
The upshot of all of this is that the smaller the move the better, especially when starting out. We can gradually require more out of our dog until we see that the request is starting to cause apprehension; that is the threshold! Keep your request just below that threshold, even if it takes weeks at the same level before you ask for more. No matter how small the increments, you will see that fastest progress by not exceeding thresholds and avoiding the setbacks that can come from asking too much too soon.