Practice Makes Perfect... but Love Prevails
by Pat Hennessy
You are sitting on the couch with Abby by your side. You look at her, snoozing and peaceful, remembering the fluff-ball when you first brought her home. Those were the days: puppy class — come, sit, down, stay. You made it past the chewing, potty training, and high energy rebounds. However, Abby seems a bit rusty on the “sit” and “stay.” Come to think of it, she doesn’t seem to respond well on a recall either (aka “come”).
We all have habits and it is really hard to break them. When we learn something new, we will act on that for a while. Maybe it’s fun or we are motivated to do it, but often we fall back into our old habits. We are habitual creatures. It is the path of least resistance — to do something that is familiar and comfortable. This applies to our animal companions as well. Use It or Lose It
If you find that you have a lazy canine, look no further than the mirror. If you don’t practice with Abby what she has learned, then it is too easy for your faithful companion to quit responding consistently. You know the phrase “use it or lose it”. It doesn’t mean you have to practice as if you are competing, but it does mean you need to reinforce the behavior you want (so that Abby will respond when you need her to). One of the best ways to reinforce a behavior is to reward it periodically (making it a surprise), only after the behavior is truly learned. It would be equivalent to hitting a jackpot on a slot machine. You keep playing after putting in several coins, thinking it will pay out any minute. To get a strong consistent behavior the “surprise” needs to be a good one to encourage Abby to maintain it.
The advantage to keeping up with Abby’s “cues” (aka “commands”) is that it gives you choices of behaviors if you need to redirect her attention, for example keeping her from chasing something out into the street or calling her away from the front door. Teaching her new cues will build her vocabulary, giving you even more choices for communication. Practice A New Cue
Along with practicing old cues, pick a new one occasionally to teach Abby even if you don’t plan to strengthen it over time, like “shake” or “high five”. There are benefits to doing this; one would be to keep her mind sharp (similar to us working crossword puzzles), and an extra benefit is the bonding time with your loving companion. If you really want to stretch Abby’s mental acuity and show off her talent, try chaining two or three cues together making a routine, such as waving good-bye, doing a down, and putting her paws over her eyes.
It is good to incorporate a non-habitual movement (like walking backward or sideways), into a cue, trick, or routine. Non-habitual movements stimulate neuro-pathways in the brain and promote focused brain function. It is also good to incorporate a variety of surfaces when practicing a cue or routine (like using a plastic tarp or a wide board — if your dog is normally on grass or carpet). Variable surfaces stimulate proprioception (pronounced pro-pree-o-sep-shen), the ability to detect the position of the body or a limb when responding to stimuli. Strengthening proprioception promotes physical balance. Since physical, mental, and emotional health are all tied together, doing exercises that stimulate brain activity help your canine to be well balanced. Fun Things To Do
There are several fun things you can do with your furry family member. If you want something relaxing try meditating to music or doing yoga together (the doggie version is Doga). If you want to do obedience for fun, try starting with Rally (beginning Rally has simple routines, all on-leash). If you want to step it up a notch try Freestyle (dancing with your dog), where you chain routines together to music. And if you want to step it up another notch, give Agility a try - it will be a great work-out for you and your canine companion.
Finding ways to strengthen communication with your companion will improve the quality of life for both of you. Doing so while having fun is all the better! Practice may make perfect if you are a concert pianist or a major league athlete, but perfection is not required for a happy life — it is love that prevails.
Pat Hennessy is the founder of N2paws, LLC, an organization that provides a holistic approach to companion animal care through behavior education, energy work, and positive training methods. Pat is a Level 2 TTouch® practitioner, CPDT, ACDBC, and member of the IAABC, IAATH and AWA. You may contact N2Paws via email
, phone 816-522-7005, or visit the website www.n2paws.com