I’ve spent a fair amount of time indoors this winter, learning and studying (thank you, arctic vortex). Whether I was reading or attending seminars and conferences, I was fascinated and hoarding information like nobody’s business.  

I’m aware, though, that filling my head with all that info only makes me knowledgeable, not competent.  There’s still one more crucial step to go before I can transform that brainy knowledge into useful skills: I need to learn to apply it.  I need to know what to do with all this information.

What’s more, I need to learn to apply it correctly and fluently, and that’s going to take time and practice.

Almost nothing is ever as it’s described in theory. There are always unique circumstances or conditions that will differentiate one case from another.  Real-life situations vary immensely.

That’s why it’s vital to learn how to apply new skills and knowledge and just as importantly, how to adjust and adapt those skills according to the variable conditions you’re facing.

What does that mean?  Well, let’s say you want to bake a cake.  You’ve already learned how to bake a cake from a traditional cook book, but the ingredients you currently have before you are a little different from the ones you originally learned about.  The oven you have is electric, not gas like in the book, and you’re at a much higher altitude, which will affect how long it takes to bake.

A novice baker might get a little stuck, not quite sure how to proceed with these different variables.  Or she might try to plow ahead according to the traditional recipe and will either run into problems or won’t get the results she expected.  

An experienced baker, on the other hand, will recognize that she needs to adjust the recipe, and she’ll know what parts to tweak.

One baker has the knowledge (and that’s a great start), but the other has the knowledge and the skills, and in the end that’s more likely to lead to an actual cake.

This is particularly true for trainers who want to address behaviour issues through the use of desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques (DS/CC).

They might spend an impressive amount of time understanding how and why DS/CC methods work, and then when faced with a case that could be helped by these techniques, they find themselves a little unsure exactly how to apply what they’ve learned to the unique variables in front of them.  They know what to do, but not quite how to do it.

Does this sound like you?  If you’re recognizing yourself here, that’s okay.  “Knowing” and “doing” are different elements of the learning process.  It just means you need some hands-on practice.

Nancy Tucker separation anxietyLet’s consider canine separation anxiety for a moment. The gold standard for treating this problem is through the application of desensitization.

We can learn about how and why desensitization works to treat this issue. We learn, on paper, how it should be applied, step by step. We have the information stored in our mental files, ready to be pulled when needed.

Then one day, when faced with an actual case, we quickly realize that there are far more variables involved in real life than in the textbook scenario we learned from.  Applying what we know turns out to be trickier than we expected.

Cake Recipes and Treatment Plans:  Same Thing

Taking into account the combinations of variables is important for the treatment of any fearful behaviour in dogs, whether you’re looking at helping your dog learn to be home alone, or to accept nail trimming, or to be okay in the presence of strangers or the big scary vacuum cleaner.  

As a very general rule, treatment plans for fearful behaviours will all follow a similar path. Every plan, for example, will correctly state that progression to “the next step” shouldn’t happen until the dog is ready.

Sounds straight-forward enough, right?

But wait… what exactly does that look like? How can you tell for sure that the dog “is ready”? What if the dog never seems to be comfortable enough when you try to move to the next step? What happens when you hit a wall or a speed bump in your plan and you find yourself a little stuck between steps?

A common mistake is believing we have to adhere to a very carefully laid-out plan.

When things don’t work out like it says they should on paper, it can feel like we’re swimming against the current.  We grow frustrated and discouraged when the progress we expected isn’t forthcoming.

The cure for getting over these hurdles is trainer experience.  Getting there, though, can feel a little like applying for a job straight out of school:  Employers want someone with experience, but how will you ever get experience in the first place if no-one will hire you?  

Fill the gap between knowledge and competence

Consider these stepping stones that’ll take you from learner to do-er.  They lie conveniently between understanding a concept and applying new skills:

Read case studies – lots of them. Learn how the skills have already been applied in a bunch of different contexts.

Audit training sessions – see the skills in action. Shadow someone with experience as they progress through a current case.

When you do this, you’ll notice just how often an approach is adjusted and customized to fit the circumstances surrounding the behaviour. That’s normal, and it’s good.

Effective behaviour change demands flexibility while still sticking to the principles of science.

Adhering strictly to cookie-cutter protocols can look and feel like you’re forcing a square peg into a round hole.

A protocol should start as a guideline, and should be tweaked and adjusted as the work progresses. In fact, I prefer to use the term “plan” rather than “protocol”, since “protocol” suggests rules, regulations, and formalities that are less flexible and adaptable than a “plan”, which to me suggests a draft or guideline.

Semantics, I know. My point is that we should all enter these behaviour modification projects with an open mind, ready to bend and adjust to navigate the variables in each individual case.

And the best way to feel comfortable and confident enough to treat fearful behaviours is to see how other experienced trainers might address the curve balls, walls, and speed bumps in their cases.

Read cases studies, audit current cases, and reach out to other experienced trainers for help with tricky cases.

Becoming a flexible trainer and behaviour consultant is no different than gaining physical flexibility: Muscles need to be stretched gradually and consistently. Eventually, it becomes easier to move with fluidity and confidence.

Stay bendy, my friends.