If you try to build a house without a foundation, posts, or beams, all you get is… well, not a house.
Similarly, you’ve got to have structural supports firmly in place before and during the teaching process.
So let’s get this metaphor rollin’...
SUPPORT ONE: THE FOUNDATION
The foundation of a house comes first, of course, because when you are building anything, you’ve got to lay the groundwork before anything else. If you put up your posts and beams without a foundation, they’ll eventually fall over, especially if you start adding multiple stories. Similarly, if you try to teach your dog a skill without meeting their basic needs first, you will have a poor foundation for learning.
Before you teach a new skill, be sure to meet your dog’s basic needs. Do you do your best learning when you are distracted by pain, hyperactivity, or Big Feelings? Of course you don’t, and neither does your dog. Set your dog up for success by only training when your dog possesses the capacity for learning. Rule out any health issues, give your pup the exercise they need, and make sure they are feeling safe, comfortable, and secure in their surroundings, all before you set those first posts.
SUPPORT TWO: THE POSTS
The posts of a house provide significant amounts of structural support. If you try to put in walls without posts… that house is definitely not going to last.
When you teach a new skill, your dogs’ feelings about that skill will provide the structural support for learning. The fastest way to teach your dog what is acceptable in people-town is to teach them to actually love our rules. Help your dog sincerely love the skills you are teaching by pairing/rewarding those skills with things that dogs already love. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Pavlov.)
And what happens if you leave out the love? If you force your pup to carry out a behavior? They may only do what you want because they are scared, shut down, or just trying to avoid punishment. And that’s no fun. Love is going to keep this house standing, not fear, force, or punishment.
SUPPORT THREE: THE BEAMS
You have to complete the first story of a house before you build the second story.
And when you teach a new skill to your dog, you must start at the ground floor. You wouldn’t teach a dog how to gently find and retrieve your car keys, for example, without first teaching them to pick up (and to love picking up!) your keys in the first place.
Your dog will be successful if learning is fun, challenging-but-attainable, and results in tangible or intangible rewards. When learning is a chore, too hard, or brings misery… your dog will not learn the skill you are trying to teach. What’s more, you won’t want to learn.
Don’t expect post-doctoral behavior of your preschooler. You want a skyscraper? You’ve got to start with the first story and then build up, without skipping any floors.
TO SUM UP
- limit distraction
- make learning fun and desirable
- set achievable results
- reward successes
- teach your dog to LOVE the desired behavior
- progress though every single step of learning, without skipping steps
- throw your pup in the deep end by attempting to train in a location, at a time of day, or in a state of mind when learning will be difficult
- make learning boring, tedious, or scary
- expect results that are not achievable
- ignore successes and/or punish failures
- expect your dog to know what is intuitively acceptable to people