It’s the first day of a brand-new decade. The Christmas festivities are over and as life slowly returns to normal, thoughts turn to self-improvement and new year’s resolutions. Social media will be saturated with eleventy billion articles on how to get fit, lose weight and change your life in 5 easy steps.
But it’s not that simple is it? Hands up who has a cupboard of shame, full of sports gear, smoothie makers and bits and bobs for various hobbies, all gathering dust? Who has said to themselves in years gone by that they would eat more healthily; exercise more or finally nail that perfect recall only to slip back into old habits before the daffodils raise their heads?
The answer is most of us, we humans suck at behaviour change1. A 2007 study by psychologist (and magician!) Dr. Richard Wiseman found that of 3000 people just 12% kept their New Year’s Resolutions2. So why do most new year’s resolutions fail and what the cuss has this got to do with dog training?
Well, the first part is a big question and after trawling through a stack of research it seems to be one psychologists are still working on. However, there are some common threads for why people fail to change bad habits or create new good ones despite their best intentions, namely;
A lack of understanding of why resolutions are set (why am I doing this?)
A lack of specific goals (what exactly do I want to achieve?)
As for the second part… you dream how life with your puppy will be, right? Good, then you need to train for that and there’s no time like the present.
In her book ‘Grit; the Power of Passion and Perseverance’, behavioural psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth explores the traits, behaviours and habits of highly successful people. Through years of research she has identified that the achievement of goals, especially difficult ones, is not based purely on ability but also the sustained and focused application of ability over time.
That’s the secret; deliberate, focussed and consistent practice towards a specific goal.
Successful people don’t just practise mindlessly, they set ‘stretch goals’, targeting one aspect of their training. Instead of continuously working on things they are already good at, they actively seek out challenges they can’t yet meet to improve on their weaknesses. They practice towards a defined target, seek feedback, reflect and then adjust their practice in a constantly evolving cycle of improvement.
So, how can we normal folk apply this when training our pups? How can we stick to our training resolutions when life takes over, we’ve had a stressful week, or we just don’t feel like training?
Well, what if I told you that several studies have shown that motivation is much less important than planning for achieving goals? People who make a specific plan for when and where they are going to do something (known as an implementation intention) are far more likely to get off their butt and do it3. Taking the time to really think about your training goals, what you want for you and your dog, why you want to achieve it and most importantly how and when you are going to put your plan into action will make the life you dream of for you and your pup much more achievable.
1. Think about what you want for you and your dog this year and why. Set a specific overall goal (just one!)
2. Plan how you are going to reach your goal, break it down into small, achievable steps focussing on where you need to improve (stretch goals).
3. Make sure all your steps feed into your overall goal. It’s tempting to try lots of things at once, but you’ll make much better progress if your training is focussed and specific.
4. Write down where and when you are going to train and set a reminder. Even better, link it to a physical cue e.g. I will train every time I boil the kettle
5. Be prepared for life to get in the way, think about what things are likely to scupper your plan and how you will deal with them, e.g. if my meeting runs over and I don’t have time to train at lunch I will fit in an extra session on our afternoon walk.
6. Record your progress and get feedback. Keep a written log, film your training sessions or ask your trainer to observe you at class. Reflect regularly, celebrate your achievements and adjust your plan if needed.
7. Find a training buddy so you can cheer each other on, share success and keep each other accountable on days when you’re thinking of skipping sessions. Studies have shown people are much more likely to stick to good habits if they have a partner in crime4.
8. Most importantly keep things fun for you and your pup and don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go to plan: passion and perseverance is the key – remember training with games is faster and builds that all important relationship. Consistency is important but so is quality of practice. If you need a day off once in a while, do it and come back to your training refreshed and eager to play.1
Post by the talented Caroline O’Rourke