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If at first they don’t succeed, don’t stop trying

Recently, while working with a dog I was asked, “How long is it going to take to get her over this?” The dog had just seen another dog and erupted, causing the woman to startle and lose her balance.

“How many times has she done it, in her entire life?” I asked. “Whatever that number is add 100 to it and that’s how many repetitions it’s going to take. How quickly you do those repetitions is entirely up to you. But the quicker you do them, the faster your dog will learn and the sooner your relationship will improve.” So often, people feel like they’ve been working on something forever, when in reality they have been managing the situation without addressing it.

I often remind people that to get a typical behavior on-demand, reliably (sit, down, come, stay) it takes most dogs 100 unique repetitions. To get an advanced behavior reliably on-demand (leave it, heel, drop it), it takes 300 to 500 unique reps, and to get over a problem behavior, it takes as many reps as the dog was reinforced plus 100, often more than 500.

A unique repetition is new and different. So asking a dog to sit 100 times in your living room doesn’t count. But asking your dog to sit five times in your living room then five more in your vehicle, then on the trail, then in the store and the vet’s office and in the dark or rain – these count as unique reps. The more you do, the better your dog becomes – at both reading you and performing the behavior.

Dogs are smart but they don’t generalize well, meaning they need to be shown that the same sit you ask for in your living room is the same sit in the vet’s office or the hardware store. They realize it eventually with enough repetitions, but it takes practice.

A problem behavior is reinforced over and over again often by the environment or the situation itself. A dog barking at a delivery truck gets reinforced when the truck drives away. So if you’re trying to overcome a problem behavior, assume you’ll need 500 good/practice repetitions and set yourself a timeline with some clear goals.

It’s also important to give your pup a chance to show you they’ve figured out the behavior you want. Test them, give them a chance. If they pass, celebrate. If they fail, you’ve found the areas you need to focus on in the days to come. But then retest them again to give them another chance to succeed.

Whether you’re working on a behavior or using a management device, give your dog a chance by retesting them, they just might surprise you.

Marcy Eckhardt is director of pranaDOGS Behavior and Rehab Center and behavior consultant and trainer for La Plata County Humane Society. She can be reached at marcy@lpchumanesociety.org.