… And Repeat. Using Repetition to Help Dog Owners Succeed

Dog trainers have an interesting resistance to repetition. I’ve noticed this pop up in many places—in our conversations with dogbiz business consulting clients about their training programs and classes, in chats with trainers at our trade show booths at conferences, in online Facebook and forum conversations. I hear trainers bemoan having to repeat concepts to clients during private training programs. Or worry about boring students by repeating directions or exercises in their classes, particularly in open enrollment formats.

The truth is, repetition is a powerful key to learning. We get that when it comes to dogs. No R+ trainer I know would ever fault a dog for not “getting” a behavior after a single trial or one training session. We understand how long it takes for real learning to happen with dogs, and seek to provide the rich repetition necessary to support that learning.

Though our human brains are far larger and more complex, we aren’t that much different when it comes to mastering new skills or ideas—we need time and repetition, too. That we understand English, hear something and nod, parrot it back, or do something once, doesn’t mean we’ve internalized a concept or acquired a skill. It’s easy to forget this when we’re sitting in the instructor’s seat teaching something we’ve had down for a long time. But step out of that seat and become a student and you remember the value of repetition. Think about a time you endeavored to learn something new—a tennis serve or a mathematical concept or how to train a dog. It’s never a one-and-done process.

So not only is it okay to repeat yourself with clients and students—it’s imperative to their success. That said, it’s not simply a matter of saying the same things over and over. As teachers (a core part of every dog trainer’s job), we must learn to use repetition skillfully and with purpose.

Embrace that less really is more.
I think part of the resistance to repetition is the desire to cover more ground, be that in classes or private training. We love what we do. We’re eager to share all that we know. We want to arm students and clients with as much knowledge and skill as we can. But that eagerness ultimately undermines us and the people and dogs we seek to serve.

Trying to cover too many behaviors in classes inevitably leaves students with a large collection of unreliable, half-proofed cues. Downloading our database of conceptual knowledge of dogs and how they learn tends to leave clients overwhelmed. In our quest for breadth we fail to produce depth—depth of understanding and skill that dog owners need to experience real change with their dogs.

We have limited time to make a positive impact on our students’ and clients’ lives. We have to recognize this and learn to work within our time constraints. Doing so becomes much easier when we narrow our goals. Rather than trying to turn students and clients into dog trainers, ask yourself: Which subset of concepts and skills will have the most positive impact on the relationship between people and their dogs?

I don’t know where we picked up the idea that we must teach so much in a six week class or equivalent private training program. Why do dog owners need stay and wait when one would do the trick? Is teaching stand really so critical to the relationship between dog and human? Don’t come, watch, target, and leave it all serve essentially the same function (i.e., to ask a dog to disengage from something in favor of engaging with the handler)?

Providing students and clients with a few multi-use behaviors (what we call universal cues in our dogbiz curriculum) and helping them discover all the myriad ways they can put these cues to use in their daily lives has several meaningful advantages. First, you free up time for proofing the behaviors for strong reliability. Doing so means clients will actually use them—and be rewarded for doing so, creating a powerful positive feedback loop between owner and dog. And you simplify decision making for your handlers, increasing the likelihood that they take positive action. Why set novices up to have choose between a large number of cues for any given situation, delaying their response time? Universal cues set people and dogs up for stronger, easier success.

Simplify your message.
Simply put, we’ve got to get better at lay speak. Not just avoiding fancy industry terms, but learning brevity. We’re just so passionate about what we do and know that we forget we’re not talking to fellow training enthusiasts. I’m not talking about dumbing things down. I’m talking about learning how to encapsulate them. If we’re going to have to repeat ourselves, we need to find shorter, quicker ways to do so. Otherwise we really do risk boring others not as into this stuff as we are.

For example, in our curriculum packages we use the phrase “working at the dog’s level” to encapsulate the idea of criteria setting. We create an experience that allows students to experience the difference between setting appropriate criteria versus setting criteria that’s too high. We use that context to explain the concept in lay terms. Then we come back to the concept repeatedly throughout every session of class, using the phrase “working at the dog’s level” to remind and help students to employ this skill. This phrase relieves us from the need (or temptation) to repeat the in-depth explanation every time the need for the skill arises.

After all, it’s not just the behaviors we’re teaching that require repetition. The skill sets—like criteria setting, situational awareness, and problem solving—are far more important than the behaviors you choose to teach. If your curriculum and private training plans do not center deliberately around teaching dog lovers these key concepts and skills it really doesn’t matter what behaviors the dogs learn. It’s these keys that allow students and clients to handle whatever real-life situations they encounter with their dogs.

Repeat experiences, too.
That’s why it’s so valuable to present your students and clients with do-overs. They need opportunities to repeat exercises, particularly ones designed to mirror real-life experiences. This is where real learning happens, in the repeated application of new concepts and skills. No matter how many times you repeat yourself, it’s not enough to tell someone how to do something, or to list all the ways one could use a behavior or concept or skill. Learners must experience these things for themselves to internalize them. Without that, we aren’t as likely to see progress in class transferring to the real world outside of it, or clients able to function as successfully when the trainer isn’t around as when she is.

For example, every session in our open enrollment puppy and basic curriculum packages wraps with a real-life challenge designed to emulate the challenges students face in their lives with dogs. They’re asked to apply what they’ve learned in that session and any previous sessions they’ve attended. They’re asked to make decisions at their dog’s level, to set him or her—and themselves—up for success.

In meeting these fun challenges, students aren’t told what to do. Instead, they’re guided through a thought exercise using discussion questions like “What do you think will be most challenging about this situation?” and “Given what you’ve learned so far, the concepts and skills and behaviors in your toolbox, what will you try?” and “What is your plan for working at your dog’s level to help her be successful?”

After the exercise we come back together to debrief with another series of questions aimed at helping students to reflect on what did and didn’t work, and why. They’re asked what they would do differently should they encounter the same situation. And then they’re given the opportunity to try that out by doing the exercise again. In short, we’re systematically teaching students to think a little more like dog trainers. The results are amazing.

We also build in opportunities to revisit experiences or exercises over time. If the results are amazing when you let students or clients apply their learning to the same challenge twice in a row, imagine the progress when they’re given a chance to try again two or three weeks (or training sessions) down the road.

Hit repeat!
Put down your worry about boring your learners. Set aside your frustration at having to repeat yourself. Let go your concern that somehow you’re failing to get through. Human learners, just like canine ones, require repetition to internalize new concepts and skills. The trick is to use this knowledge with skill, deliberately building it into your class curriculum and private training plans. If you can embrace repetition and learn to wield it as the powerful tool it is, you’ll see stunning results.