You might be thinking what does training dogs have to do with working in the training and education sector? Well, more than you think. Passionate habit expert Bram explains:
What dogs can teach us about training and education.
Stepping into the CUTESolutions office is definitely different and goes hand in hand with several certainties. One of these certainties is that the laugh of my colleague Dajo, often following one of my unique and humorous contributions, temporarily will result in the impossibility to make any professional or business related phone calls.
Another certainty is that most of the time you are greeted by one or other wagging and over-enthusiastic four-legged friend belonging to Sarah, Liesbeth, Evelien or myself. If a dog passes away, like recently Sofie’s dog, than everybody in the office will sincerely morn the loss. After all, we all understand that the most loyal friend of a person often belongs to the dog breed.
And we are not alone with these feelings. Despite the rebellious opinions from colleague Anneleen, with her strange fascination for a bird, and Eva who sincerely believes that cats also love people, dogs probably, from all animals, stand out the most when it comes to being loyal friends amongst all critters. For example, in about one out of five of the Belgian households you will find a dog. And Belgium has approximately 1.5 million sweet hairy four-legged friends. A large part of the 1.3 billion euros that is handled annually in the pet market is therefore also spent on dogs.
Markets that are characterized by investments and turnover also attract a strange professional group, which unfortunately I also belong to, trainers. And the dog sector is no exception. The advertisements for animal therapists and dog trainers, as well as the number of books on the raising and training of dogs, are increasing every year.
The Correct Approach
Just like in the professional training and education world, every provider promises that their approach is the only correct one. An old joke is that the only thing two dog trainers agree on is the incompetence of the third dog trainer. When you go through dog literature, what is preached in one book as the ultimate tip, according to another book, does more harm than good. As a dog owner you often remain confused after obtaining professional advice from an expert. And forget about reading books that start with “the ultimate manual”! If you are thinking well that’s kind of like in the sector of corporate training and advice, well that was the intention.
Back to the training and education of dogs
My lovely wife and I have been adopting dogs for years. Together we have gone through dozens of books and followed several dog training sessions. We got acquainted with personal coaches and even mortgaged our eyesight by following several hours of online training videos. The shared conclusion of all this is both reassuring and disturbing.
The reassuring part is that, despite Sarah’s blind conviction that her Spanish waterdog Lizzy has a unique intelligence, dogs do not do so much thinking. They are especially smart when it comes to picking up (our) patterns and repeating them. Dogs learn through the mechanism of habit formation.
An unambiguous command is required for this. You need a clear moment (when an owner’s hand rises), an act (I lie down and stay), a motivation (I get a cookie) and the possibility to perform the action (the training leash is long enough).
The 5 Step Habit Loop
In the CUTESolutions terminology this is an engine (command), a trigger (moment), a routine (action), an endorsement (motivation) and the environment (possibility). When our dogs do not learn certain habits, the problem isn’t that they are as stubborn or rebellious as a teenage daughter. They lack obvious triggers, motivation or a clear routine. When these elements are not in place, our four-legged friends can’t manage to pick up patterns, repeat them, and incorporate them as a habit. We as trainers are responsible for this. After all, how often do people not give the command “quiet” while simultaneously pulling nervously on the leash? As a dog on which signal do you have to respond?
People also set the bar too high. They want their dog to learn too many habits at once. This is impossible for the puppy brain to handle. What do you have to do as a dog when your owner babbles something like “lie”, while the other family members screams “off”?
It goes completely wrong when the motivation to do something, such as a cookie, disappears into thin air. Imagine when your dog sees a duck. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of running after a duck!
Finally, the environment is the last important factor in habit creation. Training a puppy in an environment full of other stimuli is much more difficult than going to a quiet spot. Insight into how habits are formed is essential for both the dog and the owner. Figure that out and you can live in harmony together.
Conclusion of this all?
The rather worrying conclusion from all this advice and knowledge about the education and training of dogs? The insight and experience with habit formation is not enough. Every dog responds and learns differently.
For example, you can easily bribe our golden retriever with cookies. But our adopted cross-wide Stafford Terrier doesn’t stand up for nothing less than a nice steak. A good dog trainer, and I do not count myself amongst them, will therefore look for triggers (gestures or voice), motivation (cookies or pat on the back) and will create an environment (in group or alone) that a dog needs to learn new habits. With people it’s not different, what works for one child, might not work for an other. Not every student learns in the same way. Of course there are standard principles that you need to know but success lies in patiently searching for what works.
Therefore, and this applies to both animals and humanity, try to set aside for once those books with “successful habits of …”. Look for the habits that work for you and your dog . After all, there is a big difference between knowing something well and doing the right thing!
Passionate habit expert, father and dog owner
Find out more about training and education:
- How can your company increase the ROI of training?
- Close the knowing-doing gap with the 5-step habit loop (This SXSW 90-minute workshop is worth gold)
- Empower your managers to give trainings that result in actual change