When we train dogs, (or any animal) we often talk about the importance of goal setting. Indeed, having a goal as well as setting realistic time frames for the goal to be achieved is a critical early step in behaviour modification. Without identifying the specifics of what we are trying to achieve or a time frame in which to achieve it, how we want our dogs to behave will remain a lofty ambition.
However, I was recently reminded of the need to take care when goal setting with regards to dog behaviour. Improving dog behaviour is a unique type of goal setting because all dogs (like people) have a starting RANGE of behaviour. This range simply refers to the variance in your dog’s behaviour from day to day, even when in the same or very similar situations.
It’s common to notice your dog appearing more or less playful, more or less energetic or more or less reactive on different days or at different times of the day. Dog owners often report to us differences in their dogs behaviour that do not seem to align only with the presence of primary problematic triggers. These variances relate to things like amounts of uninterrupted sleep, amount and type of exercise, opportunities to play or explore, food type and frequency, the provision of social contact and company and much more!
This range of behaviour can make assessing training progress confusing, as you need to ascertain whether the behavioural differences you are seeing are part of your dogs normal range OR indeed, a positive response to your training efforts. So how do we ensure we really are moving our dogs RANGE of behaviour rather than just seeing them having a good or bad day?
- Identify the dog’s original behavioural range- Look at the dog’s behaviour over time, rather than assuming the dog is always the same. Know the dog on a good day as well as you know the dog on a bad day! Keep track formally until you know this individual dog’s behavioural range- a 2-3 week diary will start to give you a more complete picture of the dog’s starting point.
- Use the identified behavioural range to guide a behaviour modification plan. Understanding that your training will not be the same every day is critical to training success. When a dog is at the “good” end of their behavioural range, push them. Teach new skills, make existing skills more difficult, increase distractions, encourage independence and let the dog start to “do it on their own”- challenge the dog’s brain at the times when they are most likely to succeed. When your dog is at the “poor” end of their behavioural range, BACK OFF. Practice KNOWN exercises, lower the level of distraction, lower your expectations, shorten the training sessions and make decisions for them in difficult situations- teach the dog you can be trusted to manage things when they feel ill equipped to do so.
- Set a time frame to do a “Progress check”. I feel it’s ill advised to assess a dog’s progress by analysing the level of improvement every day. In addition to being demoralising on the “bad days” it can also set unrealistic precedents on the “good days”. Stick to your training plan (and get the professional help you need to do so) for at least 2-4 weeks (depending on the intensity of the dog’s issues) before doing a “Progress check” at which time you should track their behaviour for 1-2 weeks.
- Compare the original behavioural range to your new recorded behavioural range and ask yourself- Are there now more good days than bad days? Are the bad days better than they used to be? Are the good days better than they used to be? Can I now set new goals for the next 2- 3 week period? How can I move the new behavioural range again?
This post was triggered because of a particular horse who made it very obvious to me how a behavioural range can shift. (although horses and dogs are different animals, they both have behavioural ranges and horses are particularly good at making such concepts VERY clear!)
In March 2019 this horse’s bad days involved frequent stopping and rearing. His good days involved very basic, simple exercises and less stopping and rearing! Fast forward 6 months and the same horse’s behavioural range looks quite different. A bad day involves some stiffness or tightness in the horse’s body, a far cry from stopping or rearing. A good day involves far more complex exercises, chained together and done well, with a lovely spirit of cooperation and relaxed compliance. The most critical point here? That there are still good days and bad days!
It’s critical to remember how the RANGE has moved, so that today’s “bad days” can be dealt with sympathetically. We must never set a goal that suggests we can get to a point where the animal in question will never have a bad day. This unrealistic goal leads to frustration, disappointment and angst in both the animal and human! We must instead focus on moving the behavioural range, to the point where the animals bad days are still safe and manageable, even though not as easy or enjoyable as the good days.
So next time, you set about setting a goal for your dog or trying to improve their behaviour, remember that what you’re really asking them is to-
Move Your Range, Rover!!