One of the most common questions I’m asked during consults is “how long will this take to fix?” It’s understandable – people want to know what the timeline is, what the financial commitment is likely to be and what the emotional toll might be. And I understand all of that. Unfortunately I always have to say, “I just can’t predict the future.” Every dog is an individual, with different learning curves, medical and reinforcement histories and genetics and all of those things and more come into play when training. Two dogs with the same issue may very well have different training or prognosis outcomes, so it’s impossible to predict how quickly a dog’s behavior issues are likely to improve or resolve.
What I do know is that dogs make mistakes during training (and so do I sometimes!) and that almost all dogs have setbacks at some point. Those are both normal parts of the process, so it’s best to be prepared for them. Even when I do a board and train or day training, the dog doesn’t perform perfectly. I’d be surprised if they did. No creature – dog, human or otherwise ever performs 100% perfectly. I wish we could dispel that notion that a “trained dog” should be 100% perfect 100% of the time. Yes, when I train a dog, it’s often much more efficient and effective because I’m a professional but when I do my training summary videos for clients, I’m careful *not* to edit out their dog’s mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process and I want them to see their dog making mistakes and also see their dog learning from them and then making the correct choices the next time. The dog needs to make mistakes to learn how to make the right choices and needs to be given the time to figure out what we’re asking them to do.
A perfect example of this is my current board and train, Holly. We’ve been working on down/stay on a mat in the kitchen and this is a really hard behavior for her. She really wants to follow instead of stay on the mat. So you can see her make a few mistakes in this video. She’s still learning. She’s only 12 weeks old and this is only day 5. The total duration of this session was 8 minutes (it’s sped up for the video) so you’ll see for 8 minutes, she really only made a couple of mistakes and learned from them, which is the whole point.
Setbacks, are a little different than mistakes. I see setbacks with my fear and aggression cases, where dogs will be making progress, even if it’s slow but consistent baby steps and then have a slide backwards, sometimes for no apparent reason. It happens in separation anxiety cases frequently. We can’t always explain it but we can do our best to expect that it will happen at some point, so that we’re prepared as best as possible to be able to readjust our training expectations and plans temporarily to reset a bit to help make things easier for the dog, to give them (and you) some easy wins. It can be very disappointing but if you’re prepared for it, that can really help.
Keeping in mind that dog training is rarely a straight upward climb from point A to point B and is more often a meandering, squiggly line all over the map can really help keep your training expectations and training realities in check.