If you’ve followed this series on behavior chains, then it’s likely you’re staring so hard at tree bark that you’ve completely forgotten that bark exists on a tree, let alone within a forest.
Now that you’re educated about behavior chains, you’re convinced you’ll to do it right. You will control the environment. You’ve identified three behaviors that you train well and you practice them over and over, perfectly! You study every single thing you do with your dog and you fret, determined not to proceed until you have perfected each step. You have decided that you’ll train with such care that you’ll never find yourself in the complicated territory of NRM’s and CI’s. Or maybe you’ve studied the series obsessively but never actually trained a dog.
If you do proceed with any of these conservative, strategic and thoughtful approaches, then be prepared to accomplish absolutely nothing.
Dog training is very much an applied art as well as a science. A theoretical understanding of how you are “supposed” to train a dog won’t make it happen unless you practice. Through practice you’ll develop muscle memory and a natural responsiveness that matches your dog’s needs at any given moment. Not over days, weeks or months, but over years. Practice and thoughtful reflection after you train will place you on the road to mastery, not reading about training while your dog takes a nap.
It is quite difficult to effectively apply theoretical knowledge to practical applications without plenty of trial and error. Mastering the scientific principles of training without including a dog for practice leads to armchair training; excellent for conversation but only loosely related to the real deal. If you’re serious about becoming a better trainer, eventually you’ll just have to get out there and put your theory into practice. If you’re serious about competition, then eventually you’ll have to enter a show and see how your training holds up under taxing conditions. And you might as well accept that you’ll make your fair share of messes, which is great, because now you can take on the challenge of fixing them!
Imagine that you wanted to learn to ski. You could spend hours in a classroom studying the art of skiing. You could evaluate how to move your body and you could memorize each step of the process. You could watch videos and critique style. You could study for thousands of hours, and eventually you could get so good at observation and theory that you might become an excellent coach without ever stepping foot on a ski. But that does not make you a skier. It makes you an observer, possibly with excellent skills of analysis.
Best case scenario, you recognize your limitations and retain a degree of humility. Worst case scenario you become a know-it all-skier – one who has never been on skis but who could do triple flips, if only you felt like it.
And so it goes for dog training.
For the sake of understanding, I have explored dog training at a level that is fascinating to dog geeks and nauseating to the rest. My experience is that trainers who both study the science of training and simultaneously attempt to apply that knowledge make the greatest strides in the shortest period of time, and that is why I wrote this series. But experience has also taught me that those who study the “how’s and why’s” without training a dog to perform more complex behaviors have no more applied training skill than the pet owner down the street. You have to make your share of mistakes, and then you’ll grow to understand that what seems simple in theory isn’t always so simple in practice.
If you have become so vested in the study of dog training that you are paralyzed by indecision then I’ve taken you down the wrong path. People have been effectively training dogs for much longer than we’ve been discussing the science, even though it wasn’t always pretty, kind or efficient, because human beings are wired for learning. I could certainly name trainers who are extremely effective in their method though I doubt that they could discuss the underlying scientific principles. These trainers have learned through trial and error, and they are reaching their goals by practicing the art of training dogs.
Do not allow yourself to become paralyzed by a fear of doing it wrong. Yes, you’ll do it wrong. I do it wrong every single time I train a dog. I could not show you a five minute clip of training where I do not make errors or wish I had done something differently, and for the most part it doesn’t matter because I believe in two underlying principles: 1) Treat your dog with kindness. Then the worst thing that happens is that the dog learns the wrong thing and 2) Evaluate what does or does not work and consider it against the alternatives. Then you’ll improve. If not with this dog, then with the next one. If not this month, then next month or the month after that.