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Progression, not perfection

This quote "strive for progress, not perfection" for me sums up the idea that when we fixate on an end goal, we ignore all the "little wins" along the way. And this does a disservice to both ourselves and our dogs.

Training- and learning- is not linear for us or our dogs- we have good days and bad, and that is totally normal and ok! As a teacher for over 20 years, I can categorically say that the lessons where the learners struggled and I had to adapt and change as the teacher, THOSE were the lessons where I really developed. And it's the same with us and our dogs. Every situation we find ourselves in is a learning one, and the more we stop, think, reflect and apply our thinking to the next round of training, the better we become at training, and the better our bond with our dog.

Progression, not perfection. We often expect too much from our dogs, especially the puppies and adolescents. They have developing minds and bodies. Their teeth hurt, every experience is new and potentially scary or exciting. As they hit adolescence, hormones are raging round their bodies and sometimes they really do struggle to focus and think (just like teenage humans!). It's always worthwhile to remind ourselves of just how old our dogs are, and what have WE done, as their mentors and guardians in this world, to help them cope? As the dog trainer Susan Garrett says

Your dog is doing the best they can, in the environment you've put them in, with the information you've given them

Think about that for a moment in relation to your own dog and some tricky situations you've had with them. Has your gundog chased a rabbit? Has it possibly caught a gamebird? As a result of this, has your recall suffered? How much recall training did you do BEFORE you placed your dog in an environment where they could do this? And how did you make 100% sure that your recall was rock-solid enough to withstand these temptations?

Your dog is doing the best they can, in the environment you've put them in, with the information you've given them....

So, in the situations described above, do we get mad at our dogs? Mad at ourselves? Or do we reflect? What more "information" could I have given my dog, to enable them to cope better in that environment? What would have helped them make better choices? To quote Susan again, "when you get furious, time to get curious". Don't waste your time being angry or upset- at yourself or your dog- but get thinking. Mistakes happen. Sometimes we put ourselves and/or our dogs in unexpected situations. Those of us who live rurally can expect to come across wildlife regularly- but when it does happen 99% of the time it's not a planned thing- but we have to be ready for it.

Progression, not perfection. I see many dogs who come to training who struggle to settle in that environment. However, over the weeks, they start to be able to offer more focus, more engagement. It might not be 100% of the time, but it's more than it was only just a few weeks before. That is an incredible win! A sign that things are moving in the right direction, and a direct result of you, their human, putting in the time and effort to work with them! When we are working with operant-minded training, we can't expect months or years of ingrained behaviour to just disappear- but we can notice and build on the progress.

Progression, not perfection. Taking behaviour into more and more exciting environments. This shooting season, my young dogs had the opportunity to work off-lead. I had spent many, MANY hours training steadiness- stopping to shot, stopping to flush, working on self-control and arousal. Despite all that training, I carefully choose when to allow them access to the environment, and would still pop them back on the lead in situations where I thought they would struggle to cope with the environment presented to them to help them make good choices, and - more importantly- not rehearse bad ones! In this image on the right, this grass is full of birds, however, I have interrupted my dog's hunt and asked him to stop, because we were asked to "hold the line" (stop moving forward). He is waiting in anticipation of being released back into the environment as his reward for being still. This would not have been possible the season before because he would still get way too over-aroused. So, despite the fact that I would still have to monitor him closely, I have to remind myself that we have progress- huge progress in fact for a dog like him who is so driven to do his job!

I used to work for an adventure travel company, whose slogan was "getting there is half the fun!". I think about that a lot, and encourage you to do the same in your training. yes, we have an end goal, but let's celebrate the smaller stations we call in at along the way, and enjoy that progress :)

If you'd like to get started on your progression with your gundog, check out the training options at See you in the training field!

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