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The Very First Thing To Do Before You Train A New Behavior

The Very First Thing To Do Before You Train A New Behavior

You’ve got your treats, your leash, and a bright-eyed pup who’s eager to learn.

But before you can begin training your dog to perform a new trick on cue, or to avoid a particular bad behavior, there’s one very, very important thing that you must do first and foremost. Many people forget to do this, and it greatly lowers their chances of getting their dog to do exactly what they need them to do.

You must visualize your dog performing the behavior perfectly. You must have a very clear image in your head of how your dog will behave once they perfect the new behavior.

Why Visualization Is Essential To Successful Training

I love magic. I love the idea of the Secret, the Law of Attraction, and all that sparkly manifestation stuff.

I do believe that if you really want something, and you’re specific and realistic about your wishes, they will come true.

But that’s not why I’m a strong advocate for visualizing behaviors before you begin teaching them.

I mean, it partly is. But it’s not the entire reason.

When you visualize the new behavior, your expectations become crystal clear. In order for your dog to understand what you want them to do, you need to understand what you want them to do, first.

In an exaggerated example, if I decided to teach Matilda to fetch a beer out of the fridge, without first visualizing her doing it, I might overlook the fact that the trick is physically impossible for her. She can never hope to open a fridge. She’s way too small. I’m doomed to a lifetime of getting my own beer.

That’s a big DUH, though. I don’t think anyone would be dense enough to demand a tiny dog retrieve large objects. However, visualization is still very important, even if you’re a perfectly level-headed person with reasonable expectations for your dog.

The Right Reaction

Here’s a better example.

Like all dogs, Matilda loves window-watching. She can do it quietly for hours. I swear, windows are as good as television for a dog.

But once Mama Hen and her horde of baby chicks make their way past Matilda’s window, she goes crazy. She makes the noise that I can only describe as the sound of a giant New York City rat having his long, pink tail crushed by an oncoming subway train.

My training objective is to get Matilda to stop barking bloody murder whenever she sees something outside. I don’t want her to react this way.

I could simply try to stop the screeching and yelping. I could tell her, “No!” or forcibly remove her from the window. That might stop the barking. But her tiny heart beats so fast when she sees something interesting. If I were to accompany every chicken-sighting with my own reaction, it would only make that heart beat faster. It would make every chicken sighting increasingly stressful and hellish.

This is where visualization comes in.

I need to understand, realistically, what I want Matilda to look like when a chicken walks by.

It’s not enough to know I need her to stop barking. I need to visualize what she will do as an alternative to freaking out. I want her to be calm, and quiet. If she’s finding herself getting too excited, she can remove herself from the window to cool down.

I can visualize a nice, calm Matilda, rationally dealing with the 8th world wonder that is poultry. She can bark at things she sees while she’s window-watching. But when I tell her to “quiet,” she’ll get away from the window and lay down calmly.

Working Backwards

Now that I know what I want Matilda to do, I can create a crystal-clear mental video of her perfectly calming down when I ask her to, without being dragged away from the window.

How can I actually make this happen?

Easy. Here’s what I do.

When Matilda starts reacting to something outside, or, whenever possible, before she starts going crazy, I’ll call her to me. I ask her to sit, and reward her for voluntarily getting away from the window.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, and she has greatly improved.

She doesn’t get too crazy, because she knows she will have to leave the window if she does. I still have to call her away from the window, but she’s happy to do it, and usually plops down for a rest.

Just like my visualization, her reactions are under control, and she’s screeching less often.

Okay, now it’s your turn! What are you working on in your dog’s training, and how are you visualizing your perfectly behaved dog?

Lindsay Pevny
Lindsay Pevny lives to help pet parents make the very best choices for their pets by providing actionable, science-based training and care tips and insightful pet product reviews.

She also uses her pet copywriting business to make sure the best pet products and services get found online through catchy copy and fun, informative blog posts. She also provides product description writing services for ecommerce companies.

As a dog mom to Matilda and Cow, she spends most of her days taking long walks and practicing new tricks, and most nights trying to make the best of a very modest portion of her bed.

You'll also find her baking bread and making homemade pizza, laughing, painting and shopping.

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Monday 16th of November 2015

Great tips to make sure habits are learn't with positive reinforcement!


Friday 6th of November 2015

I'm going to do this to work on Nuggett losing his mind when he thinks someone is at the door. I wasn't sure how to calm him down in the midst of it, but I think what you've been doing with Matilda will work with Nuggett!

Lindsay Pevny

Monday 9th of November 2015

Good luck with Nuggett! Let us know how he comes along.

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