Slow Progress with Toby

Many of our students know Toby, the big orange puppy, he’s been demonstrating in every class for 3 or 4 months now. 

(I’m migrating this post from our old site, now in 2015. In case you go looking for Toby, he is no longer a big fluffy puppy!)

I’ve been working a little bit on agility with Toby, trying to build some confidence. Our first obstacle, and I mean that in several ways, was a wide balance beam on the ground. It’s really just a very wide board to walk across. He somehow decided that this was very scary indeed, and we worked up to getting him to step onto it, then to get more paws onto it, then to take steps along it. All of which was terrifying to Toby. We worked on this for weeks, making tiny steps of progress. He required me beside him to keep from fleeing in terror, as well as lots of treats and praise for such acts of bravery. Then, all of a sudden, after weeks of baby steps, he dashed ahead of me and went running down the board. I was floored. Then he turned and came back down it! He came running to me, jumping and barking and wagging his tail. Toby the conqueror.

This has been typical of Toby. He’s very cautious or slow at first, and he requires a lot of time to think things through, and then he’s confident and in a rush and I’m just in his way.

We see this often in dog training, where the first few steps of doing something is very, very slow indeed. Where the first few times of working on heel seem to barely register and there seems to be no progress. Then suddenly, as if by magic wand, the dog suddenly understands.

With Toby, often it will seem like we make no progress at all during a session, then suddenly, the next session, he’ll totally understand what I was trying to teach him. It’s almost as if he replays the session in his mind and only then does it click for him. Dogs sometimes need time to percolate and digest what they’ve seen. I think Toby does most of his learning while he’s asleep. If you’re interested in learning more about this, the technical term is latent learning.

We’re going to start working on another obstacle soon, and I expect that one to progress slowly, too. But hopefully, after a few obstacles, he’ll learn the larger concept that he doesn’t have to be afraid of doing such things.

Toby is slowly gaining some confidence and he isn’t as fearful as he was, though it has come in small steps. I hadn’t expected it to take this long. So many problems don’t take very long to fix, but fear isn’t one of them. So, we just keep working on it.

Sometimes it’s disheartening, feeling like I’m not getting anywhere with him. Often, I think that my method must not be working and want to switch tactics, but then all of a sudden we make huge strides of progress. Toby is teaching me patience and to keep trying. Good dog.

All I really want from him, or from any dog we’re working with, is progress. Any teeny tiny itsy bitsy step of progress. Chances are that the first few steps will be slow, so I don’t mind, I’ll be right here next to Toby helping him until he can cross the metaphorical balance beam on his own.