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Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That: How Are Dog Behaviors Like Muscles?

Often, when we watch dog training programs on television, it looks deceptively easy. It seems as though, miraculously, even the most serious behavior problems are...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jun 4th 2010


Often, when we watch dog training programs on television, it looks deceptively easy. It seems as though, miraculously, even the most serious behavior problems are solved within a 15 – 40 minute time frame. Usually, the show culminates with a rosy, happy, fairy tale ending – “…and the dog never behaved poorly again, and the owners never needed to do another minute of training, and everything was perfect and wonderful and they all lived happily ever after.”

Many of my students love these shows, they eat them up. They watch the shows and expect similar results in a class; everyone waiting anxiously for the instructor to pull out a magic training wand, wave it around the classroom, and create perfect, rock-solid, permanently reliable behaviors and problem behavior solutions instantly. “If I attend six one-hour classes, my dog will be perfectly trained in every conceivable environment and then I never need to do another training session for the rest of my dog’s 15-year lifespan.”

The trouble is, much like many stories which end in “happily ever after,” too frequently this fairy-tell ending doesn’t tell the entire story and often paints a deceiving picture of what dog training actually is all about – consistency and commitment over time.

We like fast food and “get rich quick” scams. We play the lottery. We want the fast, easy, guaranteed solution, and we want it delivered yesterday. “Lose 30 pounds in 4 days!” Wow, sounds great, doesn’t it?

Except for when it doesn’t. Often, these seemingly miraculous diet pills or plans end up costing lots of money and have unpredictable results. Sometimes they have dangerous side effects. Some people see “yo-yo” results with these diet plans or pills – they lose weight, gain it back, lose weight, gain even more back.

I am sure I’m not the only one reading Dogster’s Behavior & Training blog that would like to lose a dress size or two. The allure of the “quick fix” is undeniable. I am equally certain that I’m not the only realist on this blog. If you want to lose weight, the best way to do it is twofold: eat less food, increase your exercise. It’s that simple, and yet it’s not simple at all.

We can market all the pills and machines and processed, packaged meal plans we want, but the truth is that everyone can lose weight but many of us lack the discipline needed to succeed long-term. It’s not a quick fix, it’s not as though you can modify your lifestyle until you’ve slimmed down then go back to eating fast food three times a day without putting the weight back on. Revert back to your old, unhealthy lifestyle and you will get back your former, unhealthy body in little time.

Training dog behaviors works in much the same way. Think of each behavior you train as a muscle in your dog’s “behavioral body.” Initially, it takes a lot of work to develop new muscle. It takes comparably less work to maintain existing muscle mass, but if you stop working on the muscle once you have attained your goal, eventually the muscle will start to atrophy and weaken if you do not work to maintain your results.

Likewise, building a new behavior to reliability is no easy task. It takes time, commitment, practice, dedication. Once the muscle for the behavior is developed, occasional training sessions are still required to keep it in shape.

Building behaviors, like building new muscles, is not an event but a lifelong process. If you stop working the muscles, they atrophy and will, eventually, break down. Behavior is in a constant state of flux. If your dog stops responding to cues for behaviors you’ve already trained, ask yourself honestly – have these muscles been exercised recently? If not, incorporate some refresher sessions in your behavior “work out” plan to keep your dog’s training “muscles” healthy, strong, and reliable for her entire lifetime.