On Good Behavior LLC

Building Strong Behaviors is Like Building Strong Muscles: You’ve Gotta Do the Reps!

For years I thought I could stay in good enough shape just through daily living. I’m a very active person, walking my own dogs, gardening, working with clients’ dogs etc. While this and good genes keep me skinny, I discovered on hitting forty that it doesn’t keep my body fit enough to hold up to chronic overuse or sudden physically stressful events—like holding on to an 80lb golden retriever who suddenly decides to chase a butterfly! After straining my lower back, getting plantar fasciitis in one foot, tweaking one shoulder so that it bothered me for months, I finally realized that my body just wasn’t standing up to the stress that my job and life put on it. It was hard to talk myself into it, but eventually I made lifting weights part of my routine.
It seems like a miracle that the same actions that would cause an injury when done once will make you strong enough to resist injury when done regularly in sets of ten repetitions. But it works!

Here is Ally practicing puppy push-ups (sit, down, sit, down) on an exercise peanut. We get two for one here: she is building strong physical muscles as well as stronger sits and downs.

I find myself occasionally making the same mistake with some of my dogs’ trained behaviors as I used to with my muscles. Much as I know that commands will fall apart and not hold up to stress without maintenance, there are some cues that I use a lot but rarely practice or reward. This is like lifting bags of mulch and the occasional sofa without ever doing anything to keep your back muscles in shape. Bound to cause trouble in the long run!
Two of these things came to a head with Ally recently: hopping up into her kennel in the car on command and coming into the house when I tell her “Inside”.  With both of these, she started to get slow to respond on the first command and would often dilly-dally around until I went to get her or got frustrated and told her multiple times. Both of these commands are things I use pretty much every day and that aren’t a lot of fun for her. Jumping into a crate in the back of my SUV is physically taxing and much as she likes to come with me, she is often stuck in the car for hours while I’m teaching. Coming into the house isn’t much fun either when she could be out hunting down fallen raspberries in the garden. Of course, she’ll come running if I actually tell her to “Come!”, but that’s a command I definitely don’t want to over use and under reward!
So, like I always do when these problems crop up, I went back to doing sets of ten! For a few days, rather than having her jump in the truck once, I had her do it ten times, rewarding most of them. Then I stashed some dry biscuits in the back of my truck and resolved to reward her any time she jumped in quickly. I’ll plan to gradually reduce the frequency of rewards until I’m back to an occasional jackpot every 10th or 20th time. For many other behaviors, I try to use life rewards (going for a walk, throwing a toy, belly rubs, dinner) as a reward, but it’s rather difficult to do that for getting in the truck, so I’ll stick with food rewards for this one. I made a similar plan for coming into the house. And, of course, I’ll continue to do sets of ten on occasion!
There is one other huge advantage to practicing in sets of ten rather than just doing one here and there: you can usually end with success. Just like that first push-up may have lousy form because your muscles aren’t warmed up, your dog’s first try at any command may be sloppy. If you end with that, that’s what your dog will remember. If you continue until you get a nice one, then you are imprinting the desired behavior in your dog’s head. So think of this next time a friend walks through your door and your dog breaks his stay to jump on her. Is this what you want your dog to remember? How about asking your dog loving friend to come through the door a few more times so that your dog can practice doing it correctly? Remember, it’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect!

So if you are noticing that any of your dog’s commands are getting weak through over use and under training, make a plan to do sets of ten for a few days and watch them get whipped right back into shape!

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