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Embrace Flexibility for Successful Training

As we think about training goals for the year ahead, we may envision committing to work on something specific, like improved recall or finally getting around to signing up for that introductory nose work class. Our goals don’t always have to be task specific, though. We can also focus on improving some of the intangible things that impact our training, such as mindset. If you find yourself feeling frustrated when you train your dog, ask yourself this question: Do you have rigid expectations of your dog’s behavior? Do you feel exasperation because your dog “knows” something yet doesn’t do so when asked? Instead of feeling at odds with our dog in those circumstances, what if we embraced flexibility and acknowledged that in some situations, our dogs may need more support.

I’m a soccer fan, and a common approach teams will take when striving for consistency is to adapt their strategy as needed. They might play a faster-paced game against teams they know lack pace. If the playing surface is a good one, you may see a really skillful game played, and if it’s waterlogged or uneven, you are likely to see players being more careful. The ability to be flexible and adapt to your environs aids the thing we’re all striving for—consistency. Anyone who has taken a basic manners class with his dog has likely been told about the importance of gradually building up things such as duration or the introduction of distractions. But just because we build up to a certain level of ability doesn’t mean that we don’t need to alter our expectations sometimes or have a change of plan despite our dog’s experience or skill level.

We do this all the time in daily life. Take driving for example: We’re continually making small adaptations to our speed, our steering course, and our chosen route. If we didn’t, we would likely become frustrated (and possibly get into an accident).

No one wants to give up on hard-won progress with her dog or settle for less, but being flexible and adapting to situations isn’t giving up; it’s about realistic expectations and setting your dog up to succeed. I enjoy cooking, but if I’m tired or it’s late (or there isn’t much in the fridge), then I’ll most likely chose to make a simple meal. That doesn’t mean that from now on, I’ll no longer make more interesting and involved meals; I’m adapting to my circumstances and environment. What might happen if I felt that every meal I made had to be a culinary song and dance? I might start to enjoy cooking less. And the quality of my cooking might drop—if I’m tired, I might forget a vital ingredient, get my measurements wrong, or be prone to overcook something. If my cooking isn’t very appetizing, I’ll be less inspired to do it.

My dog has great recall, and we’ve achieved that because in the interests of consistency, I’ve been flexible with my approach. He’s always handsomely rewarded for galloping back to me, but I know that sometimes, depending on what’s going on in the environment, I may need to move nearer to him to facilitate that consistent track record. The onus isn’t solely on him to perform the behavior; the part I play and my ability to ebb and flow inform our success just as much. Is it worth clinging to rigid expectations if frustration is the primary result? Knowing when to be flexible will help you (and your dog) avoid frustration. Avoiding frustration means that not only will your training reap the benefits, but your relationship with your dog will benefit as well.

Why should we embrace flexibility? Quite simply, because the environment is always changing. If you stood in the same spot outdoors and took a photo every five seconds, no two photos would be exactly alike. Some changes may be subtle, but they’re still occurring. The environment is never static, so it makes sense that as we move through it with our dogs, we continue to adapt. If you’re seeking less frustration and more consistency in your training in the year to come, embracing flexibility just might be one of the steps towards achieving it.

Gee Hahn has been working with dogs for 14 years and as a professional trainer for 12. She is a 2005 graduate of the SFSPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers and pursued a degree in animal behavior at the University of Chester in the UK. She is an instructor with the Dog Training Internship Academy, a program for aspiring professional dog trainers. Visit DTIASF.com. Next session starts in January.

Main article photo by: Gee Hahn and DTIASF