Rehearsal Is The Key To Success
The way to success in becoming a star athlete or a master criminal is achieved in the same way. The more a skill or behavior is rehearsed the better and more natural it becomes. So often dog parents may come to you wanting to change a dog’s behavior. Of course we are interested in the behavior at hand, but we should be even more interested in what is happening the “other 23 hours of the day”.
Having tunnel vision by focusing on the unwanted behavior isn’t enough. We’ve got to look at what is happening behind the scenes at all of the rehearsal time before the curtain goes up. A pro-golfer is likely to practice other calisthenics to improve his game and I’ll bet your clients dog has his own version of cross-training, too. It reminds me of Mickey, the inventive trainer in Rocky. Mickey had Rocky chase chickens to find a new and more agile way of becoming quick on his feet. Somewhere when you aren’t looking, the pup has invented his own technique for getting the result he desires.
Let’s say you feel like your client’s dog is unnecessarily barking for attention and you are at your wit’s end with this. First, we’ve got to figure out when and where else this behavior is being reinforced. Does he get practice barking away “intruders” like the UPS man or a neighbor dog being walked by the window? Although you might not be directly rewarding the pup for this action with a cookie, just the act alone of the “trigger” going away can be the reward itself to the dog. “I bark, and it goes away”, thinks the pup. “Success!” The repetition of this story is in itself a rehearsal. In turn, the rehearsal of the behavior gets stronger and more habitual. The behavior will eventually become second nature for the dog.
As a professional dog trainer even I get stumped sometimes. Imagine my astonishment when I saw my dog, Dexter with his paws on the kitchen counter! I racked by brain trying to figure out where he had learned this behavior. How had he been rewarded, and where was this rehearsed? After a week of question and observing him like a hawk, I saw him jumping up on the gate in the back of my van to gain a better vantage point. That was it! If it worked for him in the van, he’s bound to “learn” it will work for him in the kitchen. Because animals are such excellent problem-solvers they can piece together the puzzle through masterful trial and error learning. This can make the pup both clever and sly quickly, but it’s also why they are so fun to shape and train.
If the rehearsal of behavior is the key to success, then eliminating or, at least, minimizing the opportunity for the unwanted behavior is the way to begin. Common sense tells us that we aren’t going to keep the UPS guy from coming to the door, or keep other dogs out of our neighborhood, but what we do have control over is what our pup rehearses.
Let’s imagine that I am a master car thief with years of practice. Although I’ve been successful for years, one day I get pinched. I go to jail. I’m kept from practicing my craft. If one day my sentence is up, and I return to society without rehabilitation (learning a replacement behavior) I’m likely to fall back into my old ways to achieve success with my desired result. Moral of the story: If you prevent the villain from rehearsing the behavior while rehabilitating (teaching them alternative actions and behaviors), then they are much less likely to go back to their old crime.
So how do you prevent the pup from repeating bad behaviors? I teach and reward the “opposite” behavior or a DRI (Differential Reinforcement for Incompatible behavior). With barking, for example, I teach and reward a quiet cue. For jumping, I teach and reward a solid “down” or a “belly up” behavior. We should work to reward an appropriate behavior rather than starting by punishing the inappropriate behavior. We must also keep in mind those other 23 hours in the day.
Addressing the time when the dog is alone or not around us is important. For example, you can recommend crating the pup while leaving upbeat music playing to drown out sounds from outside to prevent perimeter barking. Employing simple preventatives, such as making sure the pups are well exercised and left with a food-stuffed toy to keep them engaged, can prevent them from rehearsing old behaviors.
Dogs will always be rehearsing behaviors. It’s up to us to teach and reward the behaviors we want rehearsed. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
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