For the most part, I’m pretty enthusiastic about training with both of my dogs. I love watching their tails swish like helicopter blades, moving faster and faster as they get closer and closer to the prize. I love those “ah ha” moments when there’s a palpable electricity in the air, and they tremble in anticipation to try again, “Because I definitely have it this time.” There’s nothing more rewarding than watching an animal you love succeed.
But then there are those days. You know which days I mean. They’re the 10-12 hour, non-stop, full throttle, you-can-feel-the-stomach-ulcer-forming-with-every-word-your-boss speaks kind of days. Maybe they’re the days where health concerns, yours or a loved one’s, eat up everything. Or the days when you just find yourself exhausted for no apparent reason.
These are the days that a lot of trainers pretend don’t exist. And I don’t just meant to encompass dog trainers. I mean bosses, loved ones, teachers, coaches and friends. Unfortunately, it’s easier to say no to your dog than your boss. “Sorry Shelby, I don’t have the energy to play/train/walk you today,” is much easier said and done than saying to a boss or client, “I can’t make that meeting today, because I’m just spent.”
No one likes to acknowledge these days, because Americans in particular don’t like to acknowledge that we aren’t superhuman, and we sometimes need a break.
The other fear that I’ve noticed dog trainers seem to have is complacency. That’s a legitimate concern. Because it’s so much easier to blow off your dogs than blow off your job, it can become a nasty habit. I think that’s part of the reason so many dog trainers tell you that you need to train your dog every day. Habits form quickly, and the habit of not training your dog can lead to serious behavior problems later on. But ignoring the fact that people simply need to take breaks doesn’t solve the problem either. Just like in dog training, people need to be rewarded and motivated for doing the right thing. Unlike dog training, people are able to consciously self-motivate (keep in mind that dogs self-reward and self-motivate often, many of the classic behavior problems stem from this, but dogs cannot consciously modify their own behavior as people can, or at least, there is no conclusive evidence of this yet).
Behavior modification in people, in its rawest form, can be achieved through the same methods used in dogs. Namely, you replace the “problem behavior” with a contradictory behavior which is more rewarding. Just as in dogs, it’s easier said than done, and it’s not perfect 100% of the time.
I have several ways to consciously self-motivate when it comes to my problem behavior of not training with my dogs, which have actually turned out to be much more successful than self-castigation and guilt.
Say I’ve just had an especially stressful or mentally challenging day at work. When I finally get home after sitting in traffic for over an hour, I have a load of laundry to do, dishes, dinner to get on the table, and my back is really bothering me. I don’t know about you guys, but bad days always seem to include laundry and dishes for me.
When I get finished all those things I “have” to do, the things I can “maybe skip” like working with the dogs, almost always get skipped. Well, my problem is that if that happens on a Monday, I’m pretty much drained for the rest of the week (or until I get an injection to ease the pain in my back). So a whole week could go by without training the dogs, who get bored and restless, causing them to bark more, chew more, play harder and really stink at training the next week. You see how this can compound quickly (hence why so many trainers urge you not to break the habit of training with your dogs every day).
What I do when I see this happening, is I try to nip it in the bud by self-motivating. Because I’m of the belief that all training should be play and all play should be training, I never force myself to train. I only train when I’m in a good place, but since I’m not always in a good place, sometimes I have to get myself there.
One of the ways I do that is by starting a new training class. Nothing gets me more pumped up about training than a new training class – new people, new dogs, new skills, new chance to show off (I’m naturally very competitive and showing off is highly rewarding to me).
Classes are normally 4-6 weeks though, and the novelty wears off quickly (after about the first class for me at this point), so I need some other motivators to keep me on the right path.
One of my favorite ways to self-motivate is to read about dog training or just dogs in general. First, I get that break that I probably really needed and second, I always want to try something neat I’ve just read about with my own dogs. Right now, I’m reading a fabulous book by John Bradshaw called Dog Sense which is full of a lot of heavy science on a dog’s inner life and history, but also has a lot of cool little experiments and tricks scientists have trained dogs to do over the years. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a book either (while I love Dog Sense I can see how it wouldn’t appeal, let alone be self-motivating, to many). Joe’s Aunt gets us a subscription to The Bark Magazine, which I adore and read cover to cover as soon as it comes. It’s full of great training tips and motivational articles for dog lovers.
I also recognize that not everyone is a reader (Joe isn’t, except when I read to him and force him to listen to me). Watching any movie with a well-trained dog in it can have the same effect, especially if you really focus in on the dog, “Hey – they got that dog to tilt his head on cue – I bet I could teach Smokey to do that!”
Then there’s one of my personal favorite self-motivating tricks (and my dogs’) – buying new treats. I make it a goal to buy not just a new bag, but a new kind of training treat at least once every other week (check the labels please and try and avoid anything made in China and anything that may have been included in the most recent Diamond recall – click on Diamond to see a list of those products). This is actually killing two birds with one stone, because it motivates you to train (dog shopping is fun and you want to see if your dog just loves what you bought him/her) and it motivates the dogs to work harder, because dogs love novelty (in that, people and dogs aren’t much different).
If cooking is relaxing to you (it is to my mom, for example), you could try baking your own treats instead. Be warned, however, that most dog treat recipes will make your house smell like a garbage truck just dumped its load in your kitchen and may upset any other non-canine members of your household.
So if you find yourself in a training slump, don’t fret over it – get out there and do the positive thing – self-motivate! And pat yourself on the back, because you’re most likely doing your part to stimulate the economy as well.