Build it, don’t break it
Remember those pads of paper with the wide spacing and dotted lines running between solid ones used to teach little kids to print letters and numbers? Teaching dogs new behaviors reminds me of them. We give children those extra wide spaces to accommodate their, as yet, uncoordinated movements and make it even easier for them with a chunky, easy to grip, pencil. Then we assign them the task of practicing, and practicing, one letter at a time.
Each letter is broken down into parts. The slanted, vertical, outer lines of the capital ‘A’ need to meet nicely at the top, each side being a mirror image of the other. Seems easy enough until you watch the concentration on the face of a child committed to the task. The horizontal line that connects the two sides needs to be perfected so it does not extend beyond them. We don’t berate them for the not quite perfect ones, but rather give them another piece of paper to practice more. The best of the bunch get put up on the refrigerator for them to feel proud of.
Living with a puppy for the past month has reminded me of this progression. Tooie, my foster dog is learning, second by second, to wait quietly while his meal is prepared. Sometimes he’s sloppy and barks, but he’s sorting out that a quiet sits gets the doggie equivalent of a refrigerator door display, an upbeat ‘good boy!’ and a bit of the anxiously awaited kibble. He’s a pup and unlike my border collie Finn who at the wise age of 10 can settle in for a long wait while I prepare and feed a crowd of dogs, Tooie’s penmanship may not be perfect, so he’s rewarded for his skill appropriate attempts at the behavior.
Shy, fearful or anxious dogs can be like puppies in that they need some extra support and patience when it comes to perfecting behaviors. Helping them ‘get a grip’ on that chunky pencil so they can move on from shaky block letters to sentences written in flowing cursive, is the first step. And we help them by building their skills, not punishing them for being less than perfect.