• Devan

Expect the Unexpected

Let's take a moment to chat about expectations. In my experience, expectations are poison to training. They are the Achilles heel and the crux of all of my training challenges. They are the number one thing that frustrate people when they work with their animals, and no one is safe from them. They have a tendency to sneak up on handlers without their knowledge or consent, and unless they are actively keeping an eye out for them, most of these well meaning individuals will unwittingly tumble right into their clutches.

To put a recognizable face to this common training trap, I'll talk about the one that I fall into most often with Rocky. As I have outlined before, one of our most intense and lingering behavioral concerns has been his reactivity on leash. Truly tackling this problem requires the trainer to establish a system of rewards and correction in order to replace the unwanted behaviors (barking, lunging, lunatic nonsense) with the desired ones (sitting, continuing to walk, seeking eye contact, etc.). In order for this to work, the pair begins working in a low distraction environment (i.e. the house, backyard) and expand to more and more challenging environments as the dog presents more of the wanted behaviors than the unwanted ones.

With Rocky, we had pretty much nailed anything and everything we tried in the house and had graduated to working along the sidewalk out front. Things were progressing as expected and he was slowly growing more attentive to me in the great outdoors. He had gotten so good, in fact, that I brought him along on a camping trip with some friends and their dogs. On this particular trip, we took a lovely hike along a busy trail that was teeming with adults, kids, and other dogs. Distractions galore.

And he rocked it. Not even a hair of hesitation around strangers and nothing but polite interactions with the dogs we passed on the narrow trail. By all logic, if he could handle that, he could handle anything. So naturally, I felt we had achieved a huge milestone, and in some ways we certainly had.

But, you guessed it. We returned home, where I confidently stepped out my front door only to have him go berserk over every passing butterfly and skittering leaf. Intense frustration ensued, and at the root of that frustration were my expectations. I expected that he would be challenging when we went on our trip, and much to my surprise and joy, he was a dream. Conversely, I expected that he could handle most distractions after he so confidently tackled the ones we encountered on our trip, and to my bitter disappointment, he didn't. In short, in the first scenario I set us up to succeed, and in the second I set us up for failure.

Years of working with animals had me well acquainted with this conundrum, but the sting was still there all the same. One of the hardest pieces to accept is that our animals are different day to day and do not progress in perfect phases, like mastering the levels of a video game. That's not to say that training doesn't build from simpler skills to more complex ones in that way, but the progression is far less concrete.

Photo: AJ Pow

The trick to manage this, however, is to be able to read your situation day to day and to set expectations based on the animal you have at the moment, rather than the one you had three days ago. And then to set those expectations a level or two below that when you start a session. This way, you are always setting up for success, building both your dogs confidence and your own as you gradually introduce new and more challenging tasks. When you push your dog to meet expectations that are unrealistic for a particular day or environment that is not attainable, you will both feel the failure. But when you build a training session where your dog is guaranteed to exceed your expectations, you will share in each other's successes and in turn progress much more quickly.

All in all, it's okay to set the bar low sometimes!


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