Monday, June 6, 2011

New Tricks

"You cannot teach old dogs new tricks."  ~ Quoted by Jos. Chamberlain, at Greenock, Oct., 1903

Oh, Jos! You couldn't be more wrong! My guess is this quote is actually referencing people, rather than dogs. Even so, it's not true. 

Yes, behavior that has been repeated often becomes habit. And there is comfort and reinforcement in habit sometimes. But, take away the reward, change the picture, add new incentives, and behavior can change quite rapidly. The key is creating a new situation with value and rewarding anything else besides the old behavior. Do that, and you'll get new tricks.

Always look to see what your subject is getting out of the current (unwanted) behavior. Does it get them more attention, more time with you if they don't respond right away? Has it become a fun game for them to run away with the ball? Or, do they know if they hold out, you'll give up and go away?

Truly, one of the unrecognized cornerstones of training is persistence. When my students give a cue and then say "but he's not doing it!", I often say, wait two more seconds before repeating that cue. Just hold your breath and look at the floor and wait. If you control the environment (a harness and leash help with restricting his choices, and you can use them in the house, too), and you have a history of providing rewards your pet really likes (and I hope you do!), they may just be waiting until you give in and give that goodie for free, or repeat that cue 5 times, or give up and sit on another chair instead of the one they are enjoying.

Always remember we are training our pets all the time. Be mindful of what you are teaching them. 'Cause if we can't teach our old dogs new tricks, the fault lies not in the dogs, but in ourselves.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Change: Grieve, Reflect, Adapt

Here we are in the last week of January and I’m only on my second blog entry. A life and death situation interrupted my plans; my mother-in-law and friend died of cancer on January 11th. We miss her terribly, but are grateful for her full and active life of 88 years.

Events like this have a way of making you take stock of your own life; your relationships, your goals, your career, and your priorities. The resolutions of a new year are parlor games compared to reflecting on what you have actually accomplished with your life and what you want to do with the time you still have. I know – this is kind of heavy for a blog, but here’s the thing I get out of it…

To be content in this life, you have to embrace change and impermanence. You have to not be too attached to things the way they are at any given moment, and must make the most of each situation. Sounds simplistic, right? Well, it is simple. It’s just not easy.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, I saw people who were integral to my life growing up who I hadn’t seen in years. I said things to friends and family who gathered which should get said more often. The whole family made an incredible new friend in the amazing lady who helped us all through the last hours of Mom’s life, consoled us after, and led the memorial services. I actually sang in public again after 15 years! As much as we regret Mom’s passing, I cannot regret any one of these related events. The truth? If we allow ourselves to find them, every crisis offers benefits.

There is a definite parallel here to what has happened in my career lately. Seven years ago, I was incredibly lucky to secure a dream job as the head of the training & behavior education department for a major pet product company. The opportunities, experiences, and growth exceeded my wildest dreams; it was a wonderful ride. A year and a half ago, I learned that life as I knew it at Premier was going to end. It felt like a death to me; the Premier I loved would cease to be. I cried for days, both in the office and at home. My grief was debilitating.

I had poured my heart and soul, time and energy – my lifeforce – into creating fun toys, helpful and humane equipment, and educating vets, techs, trainers and pet owners about them. My name is on patents for products, I wrote instructions for many of them, my beloved pets have modeled for packaging. I boarded more flights than I ever wanted to take in my lifetime to share the great news of humane training, enrichment, and the human-animal bond with others across the country. It wasn’t just a job for me, it was a passion.

I have always avoided using force, fear or pain in dealing with our animal companions. Those methods are integral to the new parent company. What do I do now?

The lengthy and numerous discussions I’ve had with VIPs of the behavior community in trying to make a decision could probably fill a book. So many people were incredibly supportive and helpful. (You know who you are - thank you!) I can’t begin to cover all the points of consideration in this blog entry but that’s not today’s point anyway, so I won’t try.

Today’s point is: We must accept change, adapt to our (new) situation, and carry on with our own mission. It’s simple enough, but it won’t be easy. Nonetheless, that is what I intend to do.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Overcoming Inertia - What's Blocking Your Chi?

Woody Allen said "Eighty percent of success is showing up." I never would have thought this particular actor/comedian would be the one to give me encouragement to start blogging. But, here I am. Allen's comment stuck me as saying "Get on with it, already!" Definitely a nudge I needed.

Starting a new project at the beginning of the year seems appropriate. I gave a talk recently -- "Forget Resolutions, Let's Make a Plan!" -- in which I encouraged pet owners to get away from the wishful thinking of resolutions and, instead, create clear goals with a systematic plan for accomplishment. One essential component in the success of your plan is removing obstacles from your path that impede your progress.

For some people, that might be a spouse who makes negative comments about your goals, or kids who undermine what you are training your pet to do. Very often, it involves negative self-talk, a lack of necessary information, or a lack of confidence in the value of your efforts.

I belong to the church of Perfectionist Procrastination. I believe I can't start things until I have all the contingent pieces prepared. For months, I couldn't get started on this blog because I had to have the "perfect" name for it. It's not a good philosophy for getting things done, so I am removing that impediment. This blog name is not perfect, but I am proceeding anyway. Score one for unblocking my chi.

The blog title does give me license, I hope, to discuss all kinds of behavior -- canine, feline, undomesticated animals, humans, undomesticated humanoids, etc. -- including my own. (Scary for me, possibly entertaining to you.)

From an early age, I never believed in the sanctimonious, self-serving separation of humans from animals as wholly different categories, especially common in religions. All breathing creatures are motivated by a complex mixture of genetics, past experiences and present desires. Each has intelligence and skills developed for their own circumstance; labeling them as inferior or superior is specious.

A dog behaves in ways that get him what he wants and avoids things he doesn't like. Also true for cats, cows, and humans. Some of us just complicate the processes a lot more. And each of us likes and avoids different things. Humans like to add all kinds of motives to their pets they can't back up. "He's mad at me." "She pees on the bed to spite me." We do best when we observe the behavior only without the attribution of motive. Removing perceived confrontational motives in our pets' behavior often frees us to make progress toward training goals.

Another chi blocker is adament adherance to old habits that haven't produced in the past. You know what Albert Einstein said about that don't you? "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We need to be willing to continue to take in new information and re-evaluate our own methods and skills to get our training chi flowing.

One of the biggest excuses blocking our chi is the claim that we do not have time for training our dogs and cats. We all have just 24 hours in each day, so let's all confess right here and now the problem lies not with the number of hours allotted, but the way we prioritize. The fix for this problem requires introspection and honest evaluation. Change happens when the unpleasant side-effects of not doing the training overshadow the efforts required to make the change. As an animal behavior consultant, that's the major piece of homework I ask you to take charge of yourself. After you've crossed that threshold and have your own motivation, I am here to help.

So, what's blocking your chi? Plan an hour for removing barriers, re-evaluating priorities, and asking for help from others. Get on with it, already! 

Feel free to throw an ingredient into the stew! Let me know what you think.