I love to look outside the four walls of dog training and behavior to see what else is happening in the world. I was listening to a podcast that featured an interview with Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, and she made the following comment that really caught my ear:
"One of the artist's jobs is to go to see what (the) future could look like and prevent it…or ask (the) right questions. We don't always have answers but we have to try, to give some possibilities for people to experience anon."
Let’s see if we can apply this idea to dog training as it is right now, and use it to sketch out what our training could become.
Our current strategies are focussed on setting a foundation of manners and hoping nothing really ever goes wrong. We teach basics like sit and come, and then, well, we kind of stand back and hope. We hope the client does a little more work. We hope that the client doesn’t let the work that we have already done fall by the wayside. We hope nothing serious ever happens.
But when the future doesn’t arrive as hoped, we are called on to fix the unexpected future. We respond and react. Despite outreach and talks about prevention we are trapped waiting until something breaks, and then we try to patch it.
I want to suggest another path. Morag Myerscough, a designer in the UK, said in a presentation to the British Design Council: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Do you hear an echo here? Doesn’t this sound akin to Marina Abramovic? The future doesn’t just have to happen. Abramovic asks designers to prevent the future, and Myerscough places the onus upon us to invent the future. Neither one takes the position that the future happens to us: we happen to the future.
With this mindset, instead of waiting passively for the future to happen, we take the responsibility to design our future, and the futures of our clients. We become active.
Although these statements come from the fields of art and design, we can translate the concepts to dog training and behavior. With our canine companions this means we take the initiative to build and direct positive, desirable behavior and habits instead of waiting and hoping that bad behavior doesn’t arise. We are not forcing square George into a round Fido box. Instead, we develop an environment that fosters the squareness that is George and sets George up to be the best George he can be. We recognize George’s abilities and strengths and we invent George’s future. Instead of trying to prevent the bad, we create the good and reliable.
How do we do this? First, we learn and recognize our individual clients and their strengths and potential weaknesses. We plan our training and stress those areas where we know, after a bazillion dogs, problems are going to come up. We know they are going to chew. We know they will pee on the floor. We know they will bark. We know that lots of dogs will dash for the door given half a chance. And we know that, under certain circumstances, even the most forgiving dog will likely bite you or your child. After all, they are dogs.
Plan your training to be proactive and, honestly, creative. Introduce things like skateboards, and running screaming kids, and high value food bowls, into your basic classes. With close supervision-and plentiful ability to provide positive feedback the moment the dog succeeds-provide exposure to potential problem situations. Ease your clients, two and four legged, down challenging paths while you are there as a steady, calming guide. This might require extending your training protocol a little bit, and might just make your hour to dollar return a tiny bit lower by extending the hours in a series of sessions, but look at the long term benefits. Your clients will be less likely to call in a panic-or, even worse, run to a shelter (or worse) and dump their buddy when the ugly possibility of a challenge appears. Do your best to bulletproof your clients. I know that many of you already do this, but look at your program and see how much else you can incorporate.
Stop reacting. Invent the future. Carve a new path.