When I was pregnant, I asked Kirsten to come and help us get our dogs ready for life with a baby. At the time, we had 2 beautiful rescue dogs and one of them was anxious. Kirsten came and gave us some great information as well as a few exercises that we could start doing with the dogs. Just as we were wrapping up our session, she said “Remember to notice and reinforce when the dogs are doing something right!” I rolled my eyes as I thought to myself “Really? I’m not worried about what they are doing right; I’m worried about everything they are doing wrong!” But because I love rules and instructions, I jotted everything down and started doing the exercises she had taught us.
It didn’t take long before I made 2 surprising observations:
1. My dogs didn’t spend nearly as much time doing “bad stuff” as I thought they did; and
2. The more I noticed and reinforced great behaviours, the more I got great behaviours.
It was really interesting to see that my dogs were actually good almost all of the time. I guess the bad behaviours just stuck out more because they were annoying/embarrassing/aggravating. Know what I mean? I spent so much time focusing on those behaviours that I was really missing out on all the awesome stuff they did.
The more I noticed the good behaviours, the easier it was for me to reinforce them. The frequency of these behaviours increased significantly. Even more interesting was that I was so wrapped up in focusing on the good stuff that I stopped paying any attention to other behaviours. Many of those behaviours actually extinguished themselves because I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore. Those behaviours simply stopped “working” for the dogs so the dogs stopped doing them.
Kirsten calls this little game of noticing all the good stuff “ISpy” and it is, hands down, one of the best things that I have ever learned to do. It is extremely effective in dog training and is pretty powerful in other relationships, too. Because I am human and flawed, I sometimes get annoyed and frustrated at my husband and son. Since I have yet to develop the capacity for infinite patience, I use ISpy to help me focus on the good. Instead of getting caught up in all the stuff that is driving me crazy, I try to think and talk more about what is going right. This inherently improves my relationships because my family spends more time hearing me talk about good stuff instead of hearing me be critical. Seriously. Try this.
Don’t you find that dog training (and people training!) tends to focus almost exclusively on the problem behaviours? I got caught up in that and forgot the simplest rule of behaviour: behaviours that are reinforced will be repeated. Start noticing the amount of effort you put into dealing with “problem” behaviours versus the amount of effort you put into noticing fantastic and appropriate behaviours. If I were a betting lady, I’d bet that considerably more attention is being paid to the exact behaviours you wish would go away. Pick a few great behaviours you want your dog* to do more and start to play I Spy with these behaviours today. You’ll be amazed at what happens!
*spouse, in laws, kid, neighbour, boss, co worker, whoever!