How you define success determines its existence; it doesn’t exist until you learn to see it. Success is critical to dog training, but like the mechanics of training, seeing success is a skill that requires development – both in definition and process. Whether or not a person can acknowledge success and what they expect it to look like has profound implications for the outcome of and commitment to training.
In which scenario is this little person most likely to succeed?
Scenario A involves one single step to SUCCESS – but it is one single, unachievable step. Scenario B involves many little steps, and each step is a successful increment of their end goal. The little person in Scenario A must scale a sheer cliff in order to attain SUCCESS, whereas the little person in Scenario B will achieve their end goal through a series of smaller steps, each a success in itself.
I’ve worked with a number of clients who have an idea of success that derails their training. In addition to teaching training skills we must also focus on finding a way to help them redefine “success,” and this is sometimes easier said than done. Typically, sessions with such clients involve a variation of this conversation:
Me: “Well done, did you see how Fido disengaged rather than escalating into a reaction when he noticed that dog?”
Client: “We were walking yesterday and saw a dog and he flipped out and just about dragged me across the street!”
Me: “Yes, we’ve discussed how to manage that until we can train in that situation, but Fido needs a better foundation before we can tackle that. Both you and Fido made really good choices just now. Instead of freezing up and staring at the dog, did you notice that Fido softened his eyes and ears and turned back to you?”
Client: “Okay, but when I walk past the school yard he goes crazy by the fence when he sees dogs playing!”
The client in this dialogue is that little person in Scenario A. Unless they acquire a sense of self-reflection and are able to see the opportunity that lies in Scenario B, they will continue trying to scramble up the wall in front of them.
The definition of success for this client is simply an end point. Success for them means doing away with all training and management. This client doesn’t see the success in the daily choices Fido makes, doesn’t understand her own role in how Fido makes these choices, and doesn’t understand that Fido’s success is her success. Positive training is about working with our dogs towards a common goal, not “winning” over our dogs. If a client doesn’t see successes early in training, they are not going to see it through to the “end point” that they ultimately want to achieve. Understanding success as a process for both their dogs and themselves motivates clients to continue working toward their end goal.
Success is cultivated not only through the acknowledgement of small successes, but it is also a product of the lens through which the owner sees their progress. “Good behaviour” is too often defined as no behavior at all: the dog doesn’t bark, doesn’t jump, doesn’t sniff, doesn’t bite, doesn’t run away, doesn’t-doesn’t-doesn’t. When a person experiences a paradigm shift away from this standard of success a whole world of possibility opens up to them and, consequently, their dogs. Corrective training, with a focus on R-/P+, does “work.” It works very successfully if the definition of success means “the dog doesn’t do X.” With a shift away from punitive training comes a necessary acknowledgement of the shortfall of this definition of success. While the success of a clicker trained dog can encompass similar ideas of being mannerly, we can further define success as a set of skills rather than a lack of behaviour. In addition to specific behaviours, success may now encompass problem solving, self-regulation and focused attention – and with these inevitably comes desirable behaviour. Corrective training can be “successful,” but only if that standard of success resonates.
Consider: what do you need from your dog and what does your dog need from you? Understanding the mutual exchange with an animal is a part of learning to characterize success and turn it into something realistic, tangible, and desirable for both you and your dog. Success is unattainable if it consists of one giant leap. Success is cumulative: a process. What that process consists of is dependant on its very definition.