When the pandemic hit last year and I was suddenly my children’s stay at home teacher, I was called upon to look back at my fourth-grade skills. In particular, my math skills and my ability to share those skills. I did not enjoy math growing up. What became so obvious when watching my kids learn math was that basic addition and subtraction had to be bomb proof, so to speak, before we could move on to multiplication and division. When I say bomb proof I mean, can you recall your simple addition problems when you are hungry and tired, or frustrated because your sister is chewing too loudly? If I ask you in a louder tone than I meant to, will you still remember what 17-7 is? Then it occurred to me, it is the same with our dogs. Can your dog remember what stay means and perform the behavior when they are hungry or tired or the neighbor’s dog is barking three houses away? Distractions and uncomfortable feelings are more likely to cause us or our dogs to not remember something if it is not truly cemented in the mind.
I am not saying dogs are exactly like children, but in thinking about how we all learn there are similarities. And recognizing sameness often encourages compassion and understanding. Dogs must learn a behavior by repetition, with reinforcement and then performing it in a variety of locations, different times of the day and with different distractions. And this takes time. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to the steps of basic learning. But the bright side is that often once a dog has truly learned their basic skills, been rewarded appropriately and practiced sufficiently, they will feel confident and more relaxed performing in a variety of situations. The rehearsed cue becomes second nature and much easier to pull from memory and use.
It is natural to want to move ahead and get on to more difficult cues than a basic sit, down or stay. We all want to get outside and explore the world with our dog walking politely next to us on a leash. I also want my kids to know their addition and subtraction facts backwards and forwards so they will not struggle when the class moves on to long division. A path to getting there is to make the learning as fun and rewarding as it can be. Find ways to incorporate basic skills into the day, make coming when called a game with the family. Sitting before eating or staying before running out in the backyard can all be rewarding ways to practice those skills.
It is the practice that counts. A skill that is left unused and unrehearsed will diminish, for people and animals. I am happy to report, because I did so many flashcards with the kids, I’m quicker to figure out a tip at a restaurant or change