I initially heard the phrase “The Hurrier I Go, The Behinder I Get” (or was aware of it because, believe it or not, I had never read Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and vaguely remember the movie) in one of Bob and Marian Bailey’s lectures and it really stuck with me. I remember reading it and realizing how it was all too eerily similar to the way we train our dogs. We tend to HURRY up and train end/target behaviors in any given dog performance sport and ultimately the BEHINDER we get.
To the Novice trainer, a lot of these performance sports do not particularly look that difficult to train. The thought process is that their dog can easily jump on, over and go through obstacles. The reality, as most of us have found out by trial (pun intended) and error, is that it is harder than it looks. These sports consist of hundreds of chained behaviors and each link in that chain needs to be understood by not just the dog but the HUMAN as well! And in agility that chain of behaviors constantly changes so each component,
each link, each behavior must be as strong as the next. When you begin to sequence these behaviors without the dog completely understanding the criteria for each component you can and often will get confusion and deterioration of the behavior. You can also be rewarding the behavior that does not meet your criteria so that in fact you are strengthening the behavior you really do not want to see. Of course there are other factors involved such as stress, fears and thresholds but for the purpose of this discussion I am talking simply about training components of behavior, or a UNIT of behavior
If the human does not completely understand how the behavior should be taught, then how can they teach the animal to truly understand it ?
The target or end behavior often remains the focus of our attention when training our dogs. The details are often skipped or simply not taught correctly and as a consequence behaviors begin to stall or deteriorate. It is that picture of the end behavior that becomes more of an illusion than the reality we once thought it would be. And even more perplexing is that we end up accepting what we have as “Good Enough” – A good enough behavior that MIGHT get you by for a qualification in the competition ring. And, more often than not, we keep asking the DOG to change and improve its behavior but we do nothing to change OUR behavior, OUR training, OUR understanding and education! The end result is we still keep doing what we are doing and getting what we have gotten!
So let’s take a brief look at the history of animal training. In a recent seminar Bob Bailey described how animal training originated as a “craft” many thousands of years ago. A “craft” is information or skills passed down from a teacher to a student and little to do with principles of behavior or data gathering. Not much was known back then about the science of animal behavior so people just learned the “craft”. That was all there was! However, that changed in the late 19th century and 20th century due to scientists like Pavlov, Thorndike, B.F. Skinner, Marian and Keller Breland and Bob and Marian Bailey to name a few GREATS. It is because of all these amazing minds we now have that information at our finger tips. However, animal training for the most part has remained a “craft”. One significant reason is that we have become a culture of “I want it fast, I want it now” – instant gratification with less analytical thought. It’s an unconscious mindset of achieving that target/end behavior as fast as possible with the least amount of effort. We are a culture of wanting more immediate results and instant gratification. Yep…. Give me that EASY button!
However, the biggest and most devastating thing about craft based training (apart from the animal being in various states of confusion a lot of the time) is that the humans, and the craft itself, become very resistant to change and without change we exist in a vacuum and a revolving door of complacency. You do what you do because you have done it for years and it’s given you some OK results. These results have been immediate and satisfying to the human even though the behavior constantly falls apart and they are in a constant vortex of trying to fix problem behaviors. Even more sinister is that the blame falls directly on the animal instead of the human. This often results in the handler using some form of positive punishment, either verbal or physical, to achieve the behavior they want. Never more true is the saying “Where punishment begins, learning stops“. The fixation for many trainers is to change the dog’s behavior when in fact the change and improvement lies within the human. The byproduct of YOUR change will be the improvement you will see in your dog.
By changing YOUR behavior you will see a change in your dog’s behavior
My observations over the past 17 years of watching instructors is that for the most part they are themselves craftsmen or craftswomen. In most cases it would be more like “here… I’ll show you what I do and you mimic what I am doing”. It is a simple explanation, but nonetheless it is quite a popular method. Not all seminars, of course, but there are a fair amount of them out there. What I have found lacking, or in the minority, is instruction which provides real systematic explanation of how to precisely affect change in the behavior in our dogs or more importantly how to affect change in OURSELVES. As consumers and students we should be asking the HOWs and WHYs of what we are getting taught. These are really important questions that every student should be asking of their instructor. I can hear Bob Bailey vividly telling me “if your instructor cannot tell you why your dog is doing what it is doing and waves it away with an unscientific explanation like “well, it works” …. be SKEPTICAL.” I want to know exactly WHY behavior does or does not work and if it doesn’t then how I can learn to change it in a way that makes sense using behavioral principles and theory.
But here is the kicker. In order to be more successful, to see more improvement in your behavior and your dog’s behavior then you need to be prepared to work harder, fail more, seek better instruction or education and come up with a better plan to improve. This is a mindset that needs to permeate through our conscientiousness. There is no secret pill, easy button or quick fix. It takes effort.
So when all you really want to do is HURRY UP and get going in your field of performance sport, just remember the BEHINDER you might get. There are deeper pitfalls, longer recovery and constant quick fixes of behaviors that you will have to manage throughout your dog’s competitive life. Teaching methods have begun to change with more emphasis on the theory of learning. These methods may seem longer and harder to learn initially but if taught CORRECTLY (a subject of another blog post coming soon) people find they are more successful with it. If you are one of those trainers that keep getting the behaviors you are getting without improvement or success, make the commitment to change YOUR behavior today by either getting better educated, a better instructor, or just being a better trainer for your dog.