CONTEST ALERT: Lisa has very kindly agreed to give one lucky reader a chance to win a signed copy of A Dog Named Boo! See the contest details at the end.
When I rescued my dog, Boo, I had many goals for him. But because of who he was — the developmentally delayed runt of the litter, later diagnosed with cerebellar hypoplasia — and what he later showed me, I had to devise a different approach to training him.
In my book, A Dog Named Boo: How One Dog and One Woman Rescued Each Other — and the Lives They Transformed Along the Way, I detail many of Boo’s limitations, our training hurdles, and the amazing things he did without being perfect.
The concept of successive approximations is often applied only to a specific behavior or trick. Successive approximation means that we have a goal in terms of what we are trying to teach a dog, and if if the dog’s behavior lands anywhere along the path to this goal, it is good and worthy of reward.
Anyone who has potty-trained a puppy has used a type of successive approximation. We let puppies out often so they can make the right pee and poop choices. A puppy’s bladder size and muscle control requires us to lower the bar for them to succeed; then we slowly raise the bar to achieve our final goal. We succeed by patiently increasing the length of time between persistent outings while accepting and rewarding closer and closer to perfect behavior.
In this short video clip, I talk about what I hope my book can do for dogs like Boo:
This is successive approximation on a micro level — one behavior. However, Boo taught me that patience, persistence, and perfect-is-not-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be — the Three Ps — needed to be applied on the macro level to the whole dog.
As I wrote in A Dog Named Boo, I had to use the Three Ps when training Boo on every level. It was a year before he understood to signal us that he had to go out for a pee or poop. Another year and a half was spent teaching him to take treats outside the house and to lie down in a public place.
The lessons of Boo are vast, but the biggest training lesson he taught me always comes down to the Three Ps. They apply to dogs who have special needs, like Boo; reactive or stressed dogs; those who need remedial socialization; and pretty much any dog who is destined to work as a service or therapy dog.
This refers to starting out with an assessment of the dog as an individual. Who is this dog? What is he telling me? What does she like? What scares him? What motivates her?
The answers are not always on the surface. Take your time and let your dog show you who he is. Boo’s physical and cognitive limitations made it difficult for him to answer these questions quickly — or at all.
When Boo wouldn’t lie down on command, I was told to just make him do it without thinking about why he wasn’t doing it. When he was afraid in my truck, I was told to just let him work it out on his own. I had to be very patient and slow down his training. I would ask Boo what he needed, then shift things to accommodate him, so he could learn at his own pace.
In Boo’s case, this meant more than just repetition. It did require practice, but Boo showed me it has to be done at the speed and intensity that each different dog can handle. If it takes your dog a year to get where other dogs get in three months, then so be it.
We get caught up in comparing dogs, yet one of the greatest gifts you can give your dogs is to compare them only to where they started and how far they’ve come.
For Boo to achieve his goal of visiting kids as an animal-assisted therapy dog, it took almost two years of outings that slowly worked on his basic skills and treat-taking abilities in public. I had to craft alternative cues that Boo could follow and understand, much as I advise clients whose dogs are visually or hearing impaired. Such dogs can and will learn their basics, and maybe even more than you might imagine, but not necessarily from traditional cues and signals.
This is probably the hardest part of this equation. Each dog reaches his fullest potential — in other words, his “personal perfect” — once we simply focus on each successive approximation as its own victory.
When I ask Boo for the paw command, he swipes his paw in the air as if he is searching for a light switch. It in no way compares to the easygoing dogs who leisurely reach out and gently place their paw in your hand. When Boo does it, you can see his effort and sense of accomplishment in his simple, wobbly gesture. It makes me smile in spite of the imperfection, and probably more so because of it. It’s like everyone cheering for the Little Engine Who Could — or, in this case, the Little Dog Who Could.
As canine advocates and guardians, our job is to patiently observe what our dogs tell us; then persistently, and at their speed, craft a training routine that suits them, so they can become the best they can be, given who they are.
Like Boo, all dogs have potential. Our job is to find it and nurture it.
Lisa J Edwards, CDBC, CPDT-KA, has been a dog trainer and behavioral consultant since 2000. She, her husband, and their son live in Carmel, NY, with Boo, Porthos, Pinball, and Freya the cat. A Dog Named Boo: How One Dog and One Woman Rescued Each Other — and the Lives They Transformed along the Way (Harlequin Nonfiction) is available at bookstores or online in hardcover, large-print, audio, and Kindle versions.
How to Enter
First, go to the Facebook page for A Dog Named Boo and “Like” the page. Then come back here and leave a comment below, telling us how your dog helped you get through tough times. We’ll choose our favorite comment, check to see that you also “Liked” the Facebook page, and then contact you. We’ll give the winner a couple of days to respond — if you don’t, we’ll pick another winner. Sorry, that’s the deal!
The contest closes on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, at noon PST. It is open to Dogster readers worldwide.
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