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Dog and Cat Training Takes Practice

One of my favorite things I learned in The Academy for Dog Trainers was the idea of practice. Instead of thinking of a dog’s behavior as learned or unlearned, we were encouraged to embrace the idea of practice and we also did a lot of it.

Think of a dog’s behavior as a skill like playing video games, sports, music, or arts and crafts. It helps to imagine a hobby you love. For the sake of this blog, the example I am going to use is learning to play the cello as an adult.

One night I had a vivid dream that I was playing the cello. It was such an intoxicating dream that I thought about it often and for my birthday my spouse and mom teamed up to buy me some cello lessons and a cello rental.

I hadn’t played an instrument (the violin) since high school. I had some memory of notes and strings and it all came back to me slowly. Still, I loved the sound. While I practiced I immersed myself in listening to cello music by some experts (much more practiced players). 

For an animal, learning to communicate with humans is very much a skill. As species, they have some innate traits. Dogs' superpower is reading human’s faces. Cats vocalize specifically to get our attention.

When it comes to learning specific cues though, that takes time, practice, and reinforcement. Each individual learns at a different pace. Certainly, they are smart and capable of learning words and what we are asking for; this is not a matter of smart or dumb, stubborn or willing, good or bad, listening or not…

It’s much more a matter of practice. 

If you have a dog you’ve seen this.

The dog who sits all day easily in the kitchen – and then loses all concept of this outside. Or, if there’s a squirrel or bird – forget about it!

Imagine if you got pretty good at something at home like playing the cello and then were asked to do it in front of a small group of friends, then at a local auditorium, the symphony hall, Carnegie Hall…

Each situation requires a different level of practice and preparation. 

If you’ve never asked your dog to listen to cues in public, well, it’s a whole new situation. Not only has your dog practiced sitting in the kitchen a lot, but they’ve also learned that it usually pays off. Now in the backyard or the front yard where there are lots of great smells to explore and sounds to listen to and, well, lots of distractions, they aren’t as focused on you and they don’t know that it will be worth it. Hence, not listening.

So practicing with your dog and slowly building up to more difficult situations can really pay off. 

In my neighborhood, there tends to be a lot of doggie “street food” lying around. I like to let my dogs sniff on their walks for fun and mental stimulation, but I don’t want them to ingest the occasional bone or dead crow body part. Ew!

So Lily and I practiced “leave it”. First in the house, then in the front lawn, then on walks – until she was reliably looking away from whatever she was sniffing and up at me when I said “leave it”.  It paid off one day when she grabbed a nasty, splintery-looking bone while I wasn’t looking. Instead of panicking, I remembered to say “leave it” and —bloop! She dropped it right out of her mouth as if to say, “No worries, Shel. We’ve practiced this!”

The practice, I might add, was good for me too. I also had to remember to say the cue we’d been working on!

I love these moments.

As a trainer I also love the practice itself:

  • asking for the behaviors over and over again in different environments

  • being clear about what you want

  •  rewarding the behaviors every time you get them

It’s fun to watch animals learn. I love offering a cue and then letting the dog ponder it for a while waiting to let them “get it” or not.  I love the “roll over” effect when you let the dog “sleep on it” and see them make strides at the next training session. 

A happy-looking large mixed breed dog sitting in a kitchen on a towel.
Bennie dog practices sit and stay in a location without distractions before taking it on the road.

I can see how other people might find this tedious, though. If that’s you, that’s why day training might be a great choice! Let someone who loves and is good at the watching, patience, and repetition part do the practice.

There’s so much benefit to practice. With my own dogs, learning “down” was really hard for them. They were brand new rescue dogs. Brand new to learning. When plan A didn’t work, we went to Plan B, and plan C. It took a lot of practice. 

Now, though, they are very practiced. When they are riled up in barky mode, they can still slide (in Lily’s case) or spin around (Tish) into down. And they don’t bark in “down” which I love. Hurrah! The practice pays off!

Once you’ve really, really practiced something it sticks –and you’ve got a skill for life. It may get rusty if not rehearsed (like my playing the cello), but it’s in there.

Some wonderful rewarding moments working in animal rescue were seeing dogs who had been neglected remember their skills. They’d arrive scared and shut down, but with some time and care one day they’d start to offer a sit, down, or shake and then you knew that someone at sometime had cared for them enough to communicate with them and practice. They knew those behaviors worked and started to offer them.

When I saw these, I reacted with a happy smile, a friendly voice, and, yes, I offered lots of treats. I applauded these moments as if the dogs were playing at Carnegie Hall and I was their most delighted audience. Then, when the dogs met a potential adopter, what did they do? They offered those behaviors again and charmed the heck out of that person who always said, “They are so smart!”

Smart = practiced.

One of my favorite cellists, Zoë Keating, recently posted on social media that she still gets anxious before a performance, but she is able to focus and enjoy herself once on stage. That’s important to note, too.

Practice is very helpful for anxious and fearful dogs and working on “easy” behaviors they’ve practiced often in tough situations can be a great way for them to build confidence and become at ease in new situations. 

Practice isn’t just for dogs. It’s the secret behind getting your cat to go into the crate for vet visits, for example. It works for every species. I’d love to help your dog or cat practice some great and useful skills that will make your life and theirs easier and more fun!

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