Monday, March 1, 2010

Beyond Patience

Over and over again, the necessity of patience is emphasized in dog training literature. "Be patient with your dog." "Do not expect overnight results when dealing with a difficult dog." "Maintain your cool when dealing with your dog." The presence of patience is preached as the ultimate virtue for anyone training a dog. No one providing dog training guidance overlooks the value of patience.

Patience is not necessarily an attribute possessed by all dog owners. As a result, the impatient owner may often delve into his bag of intimidating dirty tricks when things do not go according to plan. Too often, unfortunately, dog owners are not really aware of the length of time they should expect successful training to take. With a realistic outlook regarding what is ahead, an owner is less likely to find himself or herself feeling agitated or impatient.

But what is patience really? When I'm teaching a behavior group class, I could easily lose my patience with some of the owners that I have to deal with. For instance, right now I have one lady who insists on chatting up all the other students, giving them her version of what should be happening and totally ignoring her dog. I have another student who refuses to keep track of what her dog is doing and lets it roam around on an 8 foot lead.

What do I do with these two? I can't get mad. That would undermine everything the students who are doing well and paying attention have accomplished over the last 6 weeks of this class. I have to realize that there are always going to be people who need a reality adjustment, those who need constant encouragement and those who will work for the benefit of themselves and their dogs. Then I work around the slackers and talkers, gently inviting them into the group at various intervals and using them as examples when teaching new things. This way, not only do I not have to have patience, I don't get upset.

Because of the successes, the dogs that are slowly getting less and less reactive and the owners who show that they really care, I’m in a great mood and very energized, so much so that I often take whichever of my dogs came with me to class for another walk. I hardly notice the drive or traffic on the way home. I can’t stop thinking about the successes of the class, the smiles on the owner's faces and the terrific patience and kindness towards their dogs.

Patience is a necessary virtue when it comes to dog training whether you’re teaching a dog to come when called, working to help a dog overcome a fear, or trying to quiet the bark fest that ensues when the doorbell rings. Depending on the dog’s training history (or lack thereof); history of reinforcement for a “problem” behavior; and how easy or hard it is to motivate the dog, carrying a training plan through from start to finish sometimes takes a L-O-N-G time. How long is always difficult to say. That depends a great deal on the patience, diligence and consistency of the owners.

Impatience arises in large part from unrealistic expectations about dogs and the learning process. People expect dogs to nail new skills immediately and to execute those skills perfectly under any and all circumstances. If you’ve ever taken salsa dancing lessons, learned to speak another language, or to play a musical instrument, you know what I mean. You don’t learn all at once, you learn in stages – how to do easy steps, then increasingly harder ones, how to put them together into whole dance routines, and how to perform them fluidly and gracefully.

True patience is not about waiting. It's about working toward a realistic goal, a goal that is attainable and doing those things necessary to reach that goal.

Patience is not about too little, or too much. It is not about working slowly, or working faster – it is not about taking more time or taking less time. It's about enjoying what you're doing in the moment, taking things one step at a time and celebrating when each step is achieved. Patience is about letting our perceptions be fully open to the moment and not constantly looking at what "could" be but what "is" and what you can do about the reality of things. It means being completely and totally honest with yourself about the fact that you’re upset with what is happening. You’re not suppressing anything—patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.

To help you get there, here is my recipe:

1. Accept that your dog is doing exactly what he understands to do. This means, if he’s doing something different than you expect, he's probably confused. Check his understanding of what you want and return to modeling the behavior so he gets it.

2. Accept that your dog is trying his hardest, and if he isn’t doing things the way you’d like them done, realize that you need to assist him. He is not being stubborn or defiant.

3. Ask yourself, “How can I help him understand what I want?” And then make things easier until you find out where he is confused. Reward his best choices and you will get better ones in the future.

4. Try to figure out why you are in such a hurry for your dog to change something or learn something new. Change the time of training if it's a time crunch you're under. Change the place of training if there are just too many "human" distractions and you are constantly having to pull your own attention away from things.

5. Pinpoint the triggers that often make you lose your patience. In the long run, developing patience requires a change in your attitude about life. In order to do that you need to find out what triggers your inpatience. For me it's when someone is just not paying attention, whether in group class or individually. There is always someone who seems to be lost in la-la land or can't stop talking long enough to hear anything.

6. Remind yourself that things take time. People who are impatient are people who insist on getting things done now and don't like to waste time. However, some things just can't be rushed. Think about your happiest memories. Chances are, they were instances when your patience paid off, like when you worked steadily towards a goal that wasn't immediately gratifying, or took a little extra time to spend leisurely with a loved one. Would you have those memories if you had been impatient? Probably not. Almost anything really good in life takes time and dedication, and if you're impatient, you're more likely to give up on relationships, goals, and other things that are important to you. Good things may not always come to those who wait, but most good things that do come don't come right away.

Do those six things and I bet you’ll be “beyond patience” in no time!