Patterns

Nicole S. Silvers

The essence of learning, whether you are dog or human or goldfish, is the ability to identify a pattern.  When I lower my rump to the group, my crate door opens.  When I produce a treat, my dog "listens".  Like Rachel Ray says, Easy peasy!!

For owners, pattern identification behavior can fall into one of two extremes.  Typically, these extremes arise from a lack of understanding, a lack of ability to identify relevant, effective predictors of behavior.

One such extreme is the owner who is genuinely surprised EVERY time the 5-year-old dog jumps up to greet humans (or some other "undesirable" behavior).  This owner is, well, almost a cliche.   

If this cliche is you, you should know that I find your endless optimism endearing and inspirational! I also don't mean to imply that jumping-up greetings are wrong or evil -- just a frequent owner complaint, and can be a symptom of a dog whose life is missing something, though not always.

This dog performs the behavior extremely consistently, hundreds and thousands of times over the years, but the owner somehow still fails to identify the pattern.  There IS a pattern, but the owner does not see it.  She may have her attention focused on something other than the relevant factors.

This owner will ask questions like: Is it because we allow the dog to walk ahead of us on walks?  Should we stop using treats?  Will it help if I stop leaving food out all day?

Relevant changeable factors to jumping-up behavior patterns have to do with the moments immediately surrounding the behavior.  Relevant factors to an owner's ability to communicate with the dog effectively have to do with the dog/owner relationship.  Relevant factors to a dog's likelihood of displaying such a behavior have to do with emotional state, which often hinges on provision of sufficient physical, mental, and social stimulation over the past few weeks. 

These are lovely, well-intentioned owners who should avail themselves of the services of a qualified professional! 

 

The thinking mentioned above is one extreme.  Can you think of any extremes that don't have an opposite?  I can't.  The opposite extreme in ability to identify behavior patterns is:  The Once-Is-A-Pattern crowd.  Typically, this owner is one of two types.  One type is very diligent and responsible, terrified of having a Bad Dog.  (Horrors!  Stay tuned for "You Say 'Wild and Out of Control' Like It's a BAD Thing")  The other type has had a dog actually display a problem behavior as a pattern. 

Both types tend to deal with their tension by being pro-active.  They enroll in classes, sometimes sports in addition, and are diligent about working with their dogs to prevent problems. 

If this is you?  I know I'm not alone in being thrilled to work with owners who realize the importance of problem prevention, and I applaud the diligent and responsible attitude these owners display!

However, dogs being dogs, live, real organisms, not a file drawer -- The Incident occurs. The Incident (or what I might call, The Mistake) may be "serious", meaning actual injury occured, or "scary", meaning the owner was certain injury was imminent, though, in fact, no injury occured.  The Incident tends to upset and affect how the dog is treated forever and ever.  It breaks the owner's trust in the dog.  Bad things then tend to happen. 

The Incident can be the first time the owner observes dog play.  "They're playing?!?  But they're using their teeth!"

Make no mistake, I am NOT dismissing the seriousness of any serious incident.  I AM saying that, like Accident Forgiveness, the first (and possibly only) mistake is not an effective predictor of the dog's future behavior. 

 

Find the pattern: 2, 4, 6... 

I'm sure you all got 8.

 

Find the pattern:  a, c, e, g... 

Did you get i?

 

Find the pattern: 3. 

Did you say 4, the next counting number?  5, the next odd number? 6, the next multiple of 3? 

I'm sorry, the correct answer was tricycle.  1, unicycle, 2, bicycle, 3,... tricycle.  Which you would have gotten, no doubt, if you had seen the other 4 items.  And if a behavior occurs 4 times, I think it's time to call it a pattern. 

But, particularly during the "experimental" adolescent phase, a single behavior is NOT a pattern!

Which is great!  Very reassuring if you ONCE see your dog lunge towards.  Unless it happens again, that was just the one time your dog lunged.  Maybe it seemed like fun.  Maybe she stepped on a shard of glass.  Maybe her anal glands needed attention.  ONCE, particularly if The Incident is merely scary, is no cause for panic. 

However, because it is so hard to learn from ONCE, even with our fantastic human cranial structures, well, completing ONE dog training exercise properly while at group class does NOT constitute training your dog.  One experience, generally, apart from fear periods in early puppyhood, and a few other exceptions, will not have a significant effect on your dog. Once is not a solution!

No matter what training goals you have, or what "techniques" you use, repetition is the key to success.  Repetition is the key to "failure" -- making undesirable behavior a habit.  Experimentation -- once using a treat lure instead of free shaping, using physical guiding instead of a treat lure, using a touch distractor instead of a sound, or any other experiment you choose to try is extremely unlikely to have a forever-and-ever effect, positive or negative on your dog.