Great Expectations

In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, the author delves into what it takes to become an expert - an outlier - at something. It could be a sport, playing an instrument, or computer programming, but in any discipline, there are people who are outstanding in their field. Gladwell wanted to determine what factors set these "outliers" apart from the rest. Adjusting for things such as fortuitous connections, birthplace, or access to resources, Gladwell claimed to have found one consistent similarity among highly skilled people in any field: they had devoted over 10,000 hours of practice to their discipline. 

Since the book was published, however, the 10,000 hour rule seems to have been debunked.  Studies are showing that mere endless practice doesn't have as much of an effect on someone's skill level as the quality of the practice. Yet, the "10,000 Hour Rule" has become a pop culture paradigm, repeated by many people who believe it to be true. And the average person would have no reason to disagree, generally speaking - anyone who has devoted 10,000 or more hours to something would certainly seem to be an expert.

Why, if 10,000 hours seems reasonable for a human to master a skill, do we then believe that our dogs can master difficult skills for life, within minutes? As a trainer and behavior consultant, I stress over and over again to my clients that repetition and practice are key. Dogs don't speak our language, and they don't understand our world. Much of training involves asking them to go against their inherent behaviors and not act like a dog. This is a monumental request, and one that takes time and dedication to instill in an animal. They aren't born knowing what we want, and they need guidance and practice to develop new habits. 

And yet, time and again, I see this: I introduce a client to a new behavior. I explain, then show them how to teach it, then have them practice with their dog. We adjust for any issues. Usually, within a few minutes, the dog is performing a rudimentary version of the finished behavior. Sometimes, they are performing a flawless version of the final behavior. Nonetheless, the behavior is still in its infancy. But I'll hear from the owner a mere week or two later that the dog was asked to perform the behavior in a challenging setting and "refused to do it" even though they "knew better!" 

Knew better? How? Even if the owner practiced several times a day for the following week (which is rare - understandably, many people don't have the time to devote to training their dogs daily) the dog couldn't reasonably be expected to perfectly and instantly produce a behavior that he had, to be generous, less than ten hours' worth of practice performing. Let's say we began teaching a child to play the piano, and in a week expected them to perform for their friends on the playground, without missing a key. No stable-minded person would find that a reasonable expectation, and no one would blame the child for being "defiant" or "stubborn" if they couldn't perform to standard. 

Where are all those people who live by the 10,000 hour rule when it comes to their dogs? To reiterate: dogs don't speak English (or Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, or Tehuelche,) they don't understand many things about how our world works (traffic, for example) and, to top it all off, we humans are tragically inconsistent creatures. Some days, we want the dog to stay off the couch and some days we give in and let them lounge. All of this makes for a VERY steep learning curve, especially when we are asking them to go against their instincts: Yes, I know your brain and body are demanding that you chase that squirrel, but why don't you come back to me and sit quietly instead? And still, here we are, insisting that our dogs have mastered very difficult skills, in challenging settings, in a foreign language, after mere hours of practice. This is not a failure of the dog - of his understanding, his intellectual capacity, or his willingness to obey - it is a failure of the human to be a proper and thorough teacher. In doing this, we are setting our dogs up to fail to meet our unreasonably high expectations.

About a year and a half after I got my first dog, Ruckus, I took him to visit a stable where my sisters rode horses. I had adopted Ruckus as a puppy, and shortly after, I dove deeply into the world of dog training - in fact, that was the start of my career. I ate, slept, and breathed training and behavior (I still do, though much of it is with other people's dogs these days.) I trained with Ruckus every day, throughout the day. By a year and a half, we hadn't hit 10,000 hours, but we had a great deal of training under our belts. That day at the barn, I let him off leash. I wasn't paying attention to him - my fault - and he wandered off. I saw him, down the hill, barreling after a horse and rider. This was dangerous for everyone involved and I had to stop it immediately, from a good quarter of a mile away, with an adolescent dog with a herding instinct. I yelled his name. He stopped. He turned and looked at me, looked back at the horse, looked at me again. I yelled, "Ruckus, COME!!!" and after another second of contemplation, he came tearing up the hill towards me. I had treats on me, and backup treats in my car, and together we ran to the car and I heaped him with praise and food. I was astonished that he had chosen to respond despite the VERY reinforcing scenario of chasing a large prey animal. What was going through my mind at that moment, after a year and a half of daily training practice? It certainly wasn't, "what a brat for running away!" or "ho hum, he did what I told him to do." It was "WHOA, I can't believe he actually chose to do what I asked him to! Thank goodness we worked so hard on this - I never should have let my attention wander!"

His behavior was my responsibility, not his. I had been negligent by putting him in a situation that he was not equipped to handle properly, and I would have been at fault for not ensuring that his behavior was fluent enough for him to respond in such a setting (fortunately, it was.) When we expect an individual to follow rules, we must see to it that they understand the rules, thoroughly and under a variety of different conditions. Just as we wouldn't expect children - or adults, for that matter - to become experts in something after a minimum of practice, we shouldn't expect that of our dogs, either. The expectations should fall on us, the owners, to be clear, kind, patient, and thorough teachers. When our dogs fail, we have failed. 

It starts with you - developing the skills you need to be a teacher to your dog. It's not something you learn overnight, but with good practice, you will be more efficient at communicating to your dog what your expectations are. A good place to start is honing your technical training skills. Then, learn about how to communicate with your dog so you can be sure you're speaking their language. Finally, commit to practicing. 10,000 hours may not be the golden rule any longer - nor is it necessary in order to have success in training - but if you aren't an expert yet, your dog probably isn't, either.