Do you struggle to increase criteria in training? Stuck in a comfortable rut?

Julie Flanery has written a guest blog for us this week on exactly this topic; read on!

Just on the Edge of Suck 

by: Julie Flanery

I’m going to a new gym. It’s not like any gym I’ve been to before. It’s kind of like Pilates on steroids.  Lots of strength and flexibility training using the limits of your own body. There is no heavy lifting – unless you include the weight of your own body – and the flexibility exercises have you constantly pushing for “just another inch”.  The classes are small, not like the huge aerobics classes of the ‘90’s, and there is a sense of community and support.  I appreciate the cheerleading I get, being one of the oldest people in the class.

I was working an exercise with the instructor looking on, hanging from a high bar and lifting my legs into a 90-degree pike position – 10 reps. The first few weren’t bad, pretty good actually! I thought “I can do this!”. The next several I started to struggle and really had to push myself.  The last two my form was bad, it hurt, I blurted out “I can’t do this”, and yet I did.

After a short break and accolades from my instructor for pushing through it he said, “You want to be just on the edge of suck”, right before he asked me to do 5 more.

And you know what? They were better in form, and they felt just a little easier to do. 

In my mind, in real time I was thinking how does this apply to dog training? It must! Right?

Criteria shifts are one of the most difficult concepts for trainers to apply.  That piece of training where we need to push the limits to get to the next level, the next little bit of criteria that takes us closer to the end behavior, the final product.

Part of why increasing criteria can be so difficult is that we are heavily reinforced by our dog’s correctness, that celebration and sense of success we feel when our dog responds with confidence and predictability.  That reinforcement creates strength in our behavior to continue to ask for the same criteria…again, and again. And because our dog has no idea that what he’s doing is simply a means to an end, the continually reinforced criteria becomes stronger and stronger until it becomes very difficult to push through it, to improve the behavior, to get to the final product.

And this is where being “just on the edge of suck” comes into play.  Once I start to see confidence and predictability in a specific criterion, that tells me my dog understands that piece of the behavior.  If I stay there too long, both my dog and I will get stuck.  If I only did 5 reps of bringing my legs into a pike position, I would never get any stronger.  I needed to push myself just to the edge of suck before I could go to the next level.

One of my favorite analogies is Kathy Sdao equating criteria shifts to the groove in a record (yep, we are dating ourselves).  For those of you that remember LPs or vinyl records, if the needle gets stuck in a groove, it will play the same thing over and over – it “skips”.  And unless we put a little pressure on the needle, it’s unable to advance.  Unlike the success of our dogs, a skipping record becomes irritating and so we quickly apply that pressure to be able to listen to the rest of the song.  Not enough to scratch the record, just enough to slip into the next groove.

So whether you think of criteria shifts as just being on the edge of suck or fixing a skipping record, progress doesn’t happen without going outside of our comfort zone just a little, just enough to progress to the next set of successes that will take us closer to our goals.  And the celebrations will be that much sweeter.