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So far in this series I’ve used a metaphor to explain the complex and interrelated nature of behaviors and behavior chains – behavioral problems are knots made out of little strings of behavior. This metaphor fits the confusion and frustration that we experience when trying to solve problems with our dogs. It also brings into focus the give and take nature of working through trouble behavior and of learning in general.
Yea, the knot thing is an apt metaphor, as are the strings, but we’ve already said that, haven’t we?
There are a couple of phrases I use a quite a bit, and think about quite a bit more, that also fit within this metaphor, and they are Pulling the String and the Common Thread.
Pulling the String
We’ve talked about pulling strings, but we have not talked about pulling ‘the’ string. the string is the one piece of behavior that you can isolate or tweak that solves your entire problem and perhaps several other problems. It’s the magic bullet. Pull that string and all your wildest dreams come true. Voilà!
That is what I’m looking for while training and more importantly while watching others train either online or in person. I’m looking for simple and elegant solutions that solve a problem or to multiple problems.
A cued Drop is a good example of a super elegant solution to managing bitework. If you own the Drop, you have a great deal of leverage over the game and over a whole host of troublesome behaviors.
Attention is another, offered eye contact is a simple and elegant solution to so many problems.
So when you’re working your dog, don’t just jump randomly from string to string, try to find that one string, the string, so when you pull it your knot magically unravels.
Identify the Common Thread
In addition to finding and pulling the string when solving problems, keep your eye out for common threads.
Ideally the common thread is the handler’s target criteria, but it’s often not quite that simple. While the criteria may be what we are looking for, it’s often not the only thing that is happening. Sometimes other things that are happening can become the common thread. Sometimes those common threads can overwhelm our dog’s understanding and the handler’s criteria.
If your dog is Retrieving an object, a common thread could be location, which means that if you put it somewhere else, behind you, perhaps, your dog might not be able to find it because the common thread says it should happen in front of the handler.
Another common thread in the disc dog world is the “Throwing Hand”. It’s so strong that sometimes a dog won’t even chase a disc that comes out of the non-throwing hand. Think about that for a moment… an unintended common thread just disabused your dog of their love of the disc. Those things can be powerful.
When you are having a problem, identifying some common threads – position, direction, speed – can give you great intelligence on what behavioral strings you need to pull to fix your problem.
Create and Cultivate Your Common Thread
When you are teaching a behavior, make sure that the common thread is your criteria and give it a strong reward history. Make sure it is memorable.
When you are generalizing, generalize everything but the common thread, leave that totally intact. If everything else gets blurry then the clarity of your common thread will pop into focus.
When proofing you are hiding or disguising the common thread and asking your dog to find it, or you’re setting them on the thread and asking them to stay on it, both of which should be rather easy because you have done your homework in creating and cultivating the common thread, right?
Do this well and those unintended common threads like location, speed, direction, and position will fade away and your dog will be more likely to hit the criteria you are looking for. Do this not so well and there will be many unintended common threads that will tie you and your dog into behavioral knots.
Tying Up Loose Ends
Patience and understanding are required for sane and successful solving of knots – it’s a give and take thing. Don’t sweat it, take your time and stay on task. Be sure you take a look at the situation, see if you can’t identify some common threads and think about which ones might be part of your problem or part of your solution.
Remember than while you’re trying to untie your knot, you are likely to have some tightening and loosening up of the other behaviors that are connected to it. Don’t get distracted by poor performance of other behaviors, you are tightening up on a string in the middle of a big fat knot – other strings are going to be affected.