Last winter, my family grew on all fours. No, we didn’t have twins. We adopted Ananda, a then seven week old German Shepherd (GSD).
GSDs are great, but they are also a lot of work. When we first had Ananda, my son was barely three years old. Ananda thought he was a baby sheep and constantly tried to herd him. We also have two cats. He also tried to bring them together.
It was clear that Ananda and I would benefit from professional coaching. We met David Kabler, a master trainer with over 25 years of experience and founder of the Kabler School for Dogs in our hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I quickly fell in love with the training process. When I was thinking about why this might be, it occurred to me that the fundamentals of dog training have a lot in common with those of human education, whether it is about to be a parent, to develop physical fitness or to cultivate any other skill. Here is what we can learn from the two.
We all want quick fixes and immediate success, but the truth is that progress, in almost all endeavors, happens over time. “Keeping a clear picture of your dog’s training course in your mind – understanding the signals your dog is sending you and reading the signs along the way – will make sure you don’t go too fast and expect too much from your puppy.” “says Kabler.
The same goes for humans. A study found that most people have a hot streak in their careers, “a specific period in which an individual’s performance is significantly better than their typical performance.” The one thing almost all hot footage has in common? They all build on a foundation of earlier work, in which the observable improvement was much less substantial and patience was the key to eventual breakthrough.
If you overdo it too soon with your dog, he will exhaust himself, just like a human. With Ananda, this meant keeping the training sessions compact and having a long-term view. The goal is never to do anything heroic in any given day or week; on the contrary, you will develop a strong and well balanced dog over several months. âIn a well-planned training program, there should always be time to allow for leaps of understanding and action,â says Kabler.
Humans mess up this concept all the time. According to 2017 The data collected by the University of Scranton, only 9 percent of people stick to their New Year’s resolutions for a full year. Most know a slow decline: 73 percent of people maintain their resolution for one week, 68 percent for two weeks, 58 percent for one month, and 45 percent for six months. Why? Because they tend to overdo it too soon. It is far better to meditate for five minutes a day and stick to it than to meditate for an hour a day and burn yourself out.
Consistency is pretty much everything, and dog training is no exception. âYour dog deserves to have a world that is meaningful to him. By providing consistent training, routines and behavioral expectations, your dog will have a clear idea of ââwhat is expected of him, âsays Kabler.
There were many mornings when I didn’t want to train Ananda, and Ananda didn’t want to be trained. But consistency means showing off, even when you don’t want to.
This mindset improves confidence and releases pressure because you don’t always feel like you’re running low. You just need to show up and do it. It also reduces the risk of injury – emotional and physical – as there is no perceived need for massive exertion every day. The result is a more consistent performance that composes over time. Sustainable progress, in everything from food to fitness to creativity, does not consist of constantly being excellent; it’s about being good at being consistent. It’s about being good enough over and over again.
If you want to improve at something, you have to focus on what’s in front of you. It’s hard to know what to do next if you’re not fully present to what’s going on right now, especially in our current climate of novelty and distraction. In this regard, dog training is no different from any other activity.
âA big part of training is responding intuitively to your dog,â says Kabler. Learning to move in harmony with your dog in training will fuel his natural enthusiasm to work for you and listen to your requests. Having a beat with your best friend helps him see you as someone to respect and follow, âhe says.
Although we often think of harmony and rhythm as natural, it is not. They are developed by consistency, benevolence and care. âAs a trainer, it’s important to read the dog so you don’t miss key signs and can respond to the dog in a natural way,â says Kabler.
The same goes for handling a bicycle, riding a wave, growing a garden or playing the cello. In practice, this means setting aside distraction-free time for full engagement in the activities that are most important to you. In today’s world of endless stimulation, it helps to plan for this time and make it sacred.
Feed your nature
There is an age-old debate between what matters most to progress: nature (inherent talent, aptitude and temperament) or education (environment and learned behavior). The truth, however, is that this is a false dichotomy. It is not nature or education. it’s natural and to feed. Specifically, progress is all about nurturing your nature, understanding your genetics, and then doing what you can to harness and put it to good use.
In his books The sport gene: inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance and Range: Why GPs triumph in a specialist world, researcher and writer David Epstein argues that “form is often more important than courage.” In other words, the key to success is not just sticking to a plan; first and foremost, it’s about finding a plan that will suit your unique genetics and background for the task at hand.
Perhaps this is even more important with dogs. âTraining is a response to your dog’s genetics,â says Kabler. âIf I have a naturally shy puppy, I will counter this tendency with some additional socialization. If I have a dog with pronounced prey, I will direct that energy to appropriate outings and play to give that energy a vessel to live on.
Be ready to adapt
Kabler describes his approach to training dogs as having one main plan but being willing to deviate from it if necessary. Dogs get sick and humans get sick. A technique that you thought would work may end up not working at all. Progress depends on knowing when to stick to the path, and knowing when to deviate, and then having the faith and confidence to do so. âSome training paths are different from others,â Kabler explains. “It is important to have as many paths as possible to the top of the formation.”
In my own research, writing and framing, I call this robust flexibility: âTo be robust is to be strong, determined and durable. Being flexible means adapting and bending easily without breaking. Put them together and the result is a grainy endurance, an anti-fragility that not only resists change and mess, but can thrive in the midst of them. Applying this concept to your own goals is a powerful tool.
I have long said that training hard is difficult. If you don’t like the process, you probably won’t get very far. I have certainly found this to be true in my work with Ananda. Soaking up the beautiful and shining moments makes it much easier to continue through the toughest times. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement. That is, you get more mileage by rewarding the good ones than punishing the bad ones.
It helps to keep things light. Experience joy is linked to resilience, because when the going gets tough, you can look back and remember the good one, and work to do more in the future. The more you can laugh at your mistakes (and those of your dog), the more lasting the training will be. This does not mean that you do not take mistakes seriously, learn from them or correct them; it just means that you or your dog don’t have to fight over the occasional missteps or failures. The life of a human, and certainly a dog, is far too short.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Out‘s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of the books The practice of rooting: a path to success that nourishes, not crushes, your soul and Peak performance and co-founder of The growth equation.