Baby Steps: Learning Takes Time
I still have a recurring nightmare from my acting days: it’s opening night, but I don’t know for which play. I don’t know my lines, I don’t have a costume, and I’m not even sure where the theater is. Now that I'm a trainer, I wonder if our dogs feel something like that stress when we rush them through the learning process.
Much like with a dog's learning, the actual progression from being cast to opening night has many steps: learning lines (which can take a few weeks), learning blocking (the way you move around the stage), getting used to props, adjusting to costume pieces like corsets, high heels, and long skirts, making it through entire scenes without stopping, practicing in full costume and makeup with lights and sound and other effects, performing for a preview audience, and then, finally, opening the show. It takes weeks and a lot of work.
When your dog learns something new—a new association or a new behavior or both—it will also take time. To help your dog, work in baby steps rather than gallops. For example, start your recall training not by asking your dog to come back to you at the dog park but by teaching him that hearing the cue makes good things happen—say your cue word and then give your dog a treat several times over a few brief sessions. Then you ask your dog to cross a short distance--a foot, maybe--to come to you. Gradually increase the distance your dog crosses until he can run from one end of your house to another or from one room to another when he hears the recall cue. Then add distractions—whether calling him away from something like a toy or a treat or calling him outside in a more distracting environment. And when you introduce distractions, you go back to the easiest version of the game and build back up.
Even though the process may take longer than you would like, if you adjust the training to meet your dog where she is, you can help her learn faster. Track her learning by collecting data about how she does from day to day to see progress or find sticky spots that need more work. And just as it takes time to learn new behaviors, it also takes time to create new associations, especially when the existing associations are strong, like in separation anxiety. Working at your dog's pace and embracing the fact that learning isn't linear will make the training process easier and more fun for everyone.