How long will it take my dog to...?

Updated: Mar 29

How long will it take for our dog to become an “expert” at a particular skill? That’s the million-dollar question many trainers field some version of on a regular basis.

Let’s take an example: how long will it take our dog to be able to leisurely walk by another dog while on leash regardless of the circumstances (i.e., who, what, where, when, why)?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again many times over that training plans and management plans go together like two peas in a pod, like ketchup and mustard, like peanut butter and jam – you get my drift. Most of us can visualize what is meant by the term training plan once it’s explained: we identify a detailed goal for our dog to be able to behave a specific way under specific circumstances and the way we’ll go about achieving it is through incremental approximate steps that gradually lead us to the end goal (easy as pie, right 😉). However, when it comes to the term management plan though I find it can be a tougher concept for many to fully grasp. How does one "do" management and what does it look like?

My definition of management: preventing my dog from being able to practice a certain behaviour (i.e., developing the specific skill further) which either I personally dislike, or could be unsafe for him/others, by altering his surroundings in a way that ensures the behaviour can't happen.

Sometimes the use of, or reliance on, management plans can feel counter-intuitive to achieving the goal of our training plan. To execute management plans well it requires one to be anticipatory, pro-active, think and respond faster than our dog, and at times to be a little creative. It can feel silly ducking behind a car, or crossing the street, when we spot an oncoming dog before our dog does. It can be confusing to wrap our head around the notion that if we keep randomly exposing our dog to their trigger situation without a set plan then we are likely to slow the rate at which we’ll be able to achieve our goal in the end.

Think about the importance of management like this: when our dog lunges and barks at the end of their leash at another dog it truly isn’t occurring to them that their behaviour might be problematic.

Whenever our dog is put in this particular situation it provides yet another opportunity for them to practice that problematic behaviour that is driving us nuts. If I continue to randomly expose my dog to other dogs while on leash with the hope that it will eventually dawn on him to change his actions then all I’m doing is helping him to become an expert at the behaviour I wish to curb via deliberate practice. If we want to get good at doing something specific, it won’t help us if we practice doing it the wrong way. This is where management helps us and our dog deal with the messy real world while at the same time allowing for gains toward our training plan goal.

When we know that our dog is about to be challenged by a real-life situation which constitutes a level of difficulty not yet achieved in his training plan it is safe to assume won't be able to successfully execute his new skill. This is when we use a management strategy because the situation is going to be too advanced at this time so he won't likely be able to correctly practice what we’ve been working on during training. It's kind of like when someone is just getting the hang of skiing on the bunny hill and then we ask them to do the same thing they were doing only this time down a black diamond. The person's heart will start racing and what they just learned on the bunny hill will likely go out the window. Their ability to practice their freshly learned "pizza and fries" technique with good execution while their adrenaline kicks into high gear isn't probable. Similarly, I wish to avoid providing my dog with an opportunity where he's unlikely to be successful at executing the skill we've been working on.

How do we know this is the best approach?

Modern trainers look to the current scientific findings. We know that all normal functioning organisms learn according to the same psychological principles and research shows that the best way to develop a skill is through practice, but that’s not actually the whole story. I don’t know many people who would disagree with the premise that practice is key to getting better at something and would demand to see the data; but interestingly enough, upon review it becomes apparent that the old adage “practice makes perfect” isn’t entirely accurate.

Many people have heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule that was made popular in the book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. If you didn’t read the book and just caught the Cliff’s Notes like me, you’d likely take this to mean that anyone who practices a skill for 10,000 hours can achieve expertise at that skill, right? Well, according to the most notable research, one of the key findings is that when it comes to skill development practice quality (methodically designed and properly executed) absolutely trumps practice quantity (time spent) when striving for a high level of performance.

Thoroughly educated trainers know that the same is true for dogs. Not only that they need a lot of practice to fully develop a particular skill, such as looking at you when another dog appears while out on a walk, but also that the practice we do with them needs to be well-executed (i.e., following an efficient training plan, good handler mechanics, etc.) and not overly error-laden if expertise is to be achieved. The research indicates that the benefits of deliberate training are not likely to be fully realized if there is too much inconsistency and no plan to follow to ensure proper execution when practicing.

So then, how long will it take your dog to become an expert at leisurely walking by another dog while on leash under any circumstances? The answer is... no one knows for sure. But, if you are committed to working through an incremental training plan backed up by the use of good management strategies to augment your dog’s environment when the ability to practice the new skill won't be possible, then I’m willing to bet a lot of money that it won't likely take anywhere near 10,000 hours.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

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