This week’s guest blogger is Shannon Coyner. Shannon is the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness & Dog Training Center. Shannon has been in dog training for over 20 years and is an advocate of positive reinforcement dog training.
With the Olympics, we have been watching some of the best of the best. The amazing men and women in these games have natural talent (genetics) and have worked very hard to get where they are. The sacrifices these athletes make are unimaginable to most of us. For example, Michael Phelps swimming workout is one of the most physically demanding around. In peak training phases, Phelps swims approximately 80,000 meters a week. This is nearly 50 miles or 1,600 laps in the pool. He also maintains a 12,000 calorie diet. Clearly, his natural talents alone are not what makes him so successful.
Genetics and Hard Work
But this is not limited to Olympic athletes. To be great at anything in life requires some genetic talent and hard work. As a dog trainer I see these same dynamics with dogs every day. But unfortunately, I have found that many people overlook the fact that genetics and hard work are both involved in training their dogs. Sadly, when people do not recognize this, they can set their dogs up to fail.
For example, owners may overlook their dog’s physical and/or mental limitations. This can occur with an incredibly intelligent border collie that is locked in an uninteresting, small apartment who is blamed for ripping apart a couch or destroying his owner’s shoes when he gets board. Or this can be a fearful golden retriever who fails out of service dog work after being unable to work around strangers.
In both cases, the dog’s owners did not set the right expectations for their dogs and did not take their natural talents into consideration. We may expect Phelps to win gold in the 200 meter butterfly, but if we put him on the high bar in gymnastics our expectations would be considerably different.
I also often find that owners can underestimate the amount of work it really takes to fully teach a dog a behavior. Even if a person adopts a dog with ideal genetics, it still takes time, consistency and dedication to turn that potential into reality. Finding a really good teacher (or trainer) can help you along in this process. But there are no shortcuts. Even with the best trainer on the planet, your dog will need a lot of practice in order to master the behaviors that you teach.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
For humans it takes 3,000-5,000 repetitions of a skill (such as swinging a baseball bat or riding a bike) before our muscle memory turns the behavior into something that happens almost automatically. Many would agree that this likely pertains to dogs as well.
This means to acquire the number of repetitions to master a behavior you must practice often with your dog. Here are a few examples. If you practiced sit 50 repetitions a day, it would take 60 days to reach 3,000 repetitions. If you only practiced 25 repetitions a day, it would take 120 days or approximately four months! Obviously easier skills such as “sit” or “down” may take closer to 3,000 repetitions, but harder behaviors such as a good “come” may require closer to 5,000.
How we practice can also impact how quickly we can master a skill. This means managing distractions while we practice and taking the genetic disposition of the dog into consideration. Some dogs may require a significant amount of practice at home, before they can handle the distractions of doing the same skill in the front yard, at the park or in the presence of a new dog. Therefore, not only do you need to put in the practice time, but you must incorporate distractions as the dog progresses.
Next time you lose your patients or get frustrated with your dog because he or she did not master a behavior be sure you are setting realistic expectations. When you dog seems to be struggling be mindful of your dog’s genetic limitations, the amount of practice you have done and if you have practiced in distracting situations. Everyone wins when you set your dog up to succeed.