"Hope: A desire of some good, accompanied with an expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable; an expectation of something which is thought to be desirable; confidence; pleasing expectancy." (Webster's Dictionary)
In a previous blog I spoke about the importance of trust. I mentioned several of my dog training heroes and noted that they have earned our trust with years of reliable scientific research. I also mentioned how important it is for people to earn their dog's trust. Having trustworthy information and being a trustworthy person are both important and they will make achieving your goals easier. But it's not enough. We all struggle sometimes, we all experience fear and self doubt. Trusting that you have accurate information isn't going to help if you are crippled with feelings of hopelessness. We need hope.
Hope, lost and found
When I first started studying to become a dog trainer, I almost lost hope. About a half dozen times. I began my dog training education in the Karen Pryor Academy, which runs the most successful professional dog trainer class in the world. Two weeks before our final exam in the Dog Trainer Professional Class, my beloved dog Buffy, for no obvious reason, stopped doing half of the behaviors she had learned. I was on the verge of panic. Eventually we figured out that she was suffering from joint pain; all the behaviors she was refusing involved moving her front legs. She didn't limp or show obvious signs of pain, she was being very stoic. She got some pain medication and we were able to get back to work, but we lost a week of practice just before our final exam. Our final exam included a ten part behavior chain that we had to cue our dog through. The day before the exam, we were very close, but had still not yet gotten through the chain perfectly even one time. The day of the exam I did have to re-cue ONE behavior, but other than that, she was perfect. The instructor was stunned and told the entire class about our struggles and even added "I honestly did not believe that was possible." I wasn't certain she would be able to do it, but I knew she was close, and steadily getting closer. I was a little anxious, but I was also feeling hopeful again. Her best run up to that point was the final exam. After we finished, I went through the chain a few more times at home and she nailed it each time. I was so proud of her, and myself too. We both worked hard and did well.
I also started to lose hope at a recent Tricks Dog Instructor weekend workshop. I had borrowed a friend's dog for this workshop, and I underestimated how stressful this experience might be for him, and at first I handled it poorly; my own stress levels shot up and made things harder for the dog than it should have been. I did better as the day went on, but I was a mess all morning on day one. When I got home I remember being a little disappointed with myself, but mostly I was determined NOT to repeat my mistakes the next day. If you’ve ever worked with me before, you’ve probably heard me recommend something called “The Jolly Routine.” It’s a method for dealing with a dog that is stressed that is more effective than most of our attempts to be soothing. I reminded myself to take my own advice and use the Jolly Routine. I had seen it work with other dogs, including this particular dog, so I knew it was a reliable technique that I could trust. I was feeling confident and hopeful when I went to bed that night. The next day our teacher spoke about the importance of using your “happy voice” when training and I noticed she looked at me when she said it, so I laughed a little and said “I’m doing much better today!” In fact, not to brag, but I rocked on day two. I was calm and confident, my timing and technique improved, and I felt like a different person. I didn’t do it on my own. My canine buddy Bernie was performing like a star now that I had changed my own attitude, and I was pretty impressed with how well he handled himself considering I made day one a lot more stressful than it needed to be. We finished the workshop and had a great time together.
Learn from failures, build on successes
Some people may be surprised to hear me talk about getting discouraged or starting to lose hope. I don’t think that’s how I usually appear to other people. I am not a particularly anxious person, I never panic, I rarely lose my temper, and I almost never feel hopeless. But everyone struggles sometimes, no one is immune. We've all failed before. We all make mistakes, we all experience doubt and fear. Hope is the antidote for our doubt and fear.
Modern, science based dog training can help you focus on the pursuit of excellence, even when you are struggling with self doubt. We're taught to set ourselves and our dogs up for success. We set a simple, easily achievable goal, and then build on it. We don't expect that our dog will learn to do something complicated like slamming cupboard doors closed on command or finding a hidden container filled with wintergreen odor in a crowded room or on a car in one session. We break it down into many simple, achievable steps. As soon as we get the first simple step done, we pat our selves on the back (and our dogs!) as a reward for a job well done. Then we work on the next step, and the next, and so on. If you get stuck, just go back to an easier step so you can experience some success again and then start raising criteria, more gradually this time, based on what you've learned. With each successful step, you will feel more confident and more hopeful.
What are you hoping for?
Modern dog trainers always ask: What do you want your dog to DO? People will often say "To stop pulling on walks" or "To stop barking!" and we will respond with "But what do you want them to DO?" It's easy to get so focused on stopping undesirable behavior that we forget that it's even more important to teach the dog what we WANT them to do. We can suppress a bark or stop pulling with punishment, but that's not the best way to frame these problems. A better mindset is to figure out what we WANT the dog to do instead, like "walk calmly by my side" for example. If we have a clear goal, like "I want my dog to walk calmly by my side" and we rely on trustworthy people using proven methods as our guide, and put in the time and work in a way that earns our dog's trust, our odds of success will be very high. We have a realistic expectation of a good, desirable outcome, and we have trustworthy methods to make those outcomes happen. We have generated for ourselves a "pleasing expectancy." We have created within ourselves HOPE.
"Pleasing expectancy" is the definition of hope I like best from Webster's. It's not always easy to expect a pleasing result. You are going to struggle with your dog, you are going to mess up sometimes. There's a chance that something you want to do won't work out, and you might fail. I didn't write about any of my failures in this article, but I have had more than my share. I have failed hard at things that were important to me many times, just like everyone else. That's OK. You don't need to succeed at everything you do, that's not even possible. You need to be reasonable in your goal setting. If you have a reasonable goal, and you are using trustworthy, reliable methods to achieve those goals, as long as you don't give up, your odds of success are going to be very high, and your success will make it easier to hope in the future.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong, there will be some disappointments, so we need to learn to be patient. As I mentioned in the "Trust" blog, sometimes it can be hard to find qualified experts that provide reliable information. It's tempting to cut corners, set unrealistic goals, push things too fast; it's easy to make mistakes. If you suffer from clinical depression or anxiety, this can be especially difficult, and you may need help from your doctor. But science, trustworthy information, cultivating trustworthiness in yourself, and steady methodical work, will give you great results, and just as importantly, these things can give you hope, even when you are struggling with fear and self doubt.