Updated: Sep 25, 2020
When I was studying engineering in college, there was a common "joke" in physics classes about how the Earth was a perfect sphere. When we did physics calculations, we had to make some assumptions and simplify things in order to do the math. We had to make some assumptions and simplify things in order to do the math. So we would treat the Earth as a perfect sphere (not lumpy and oddly shaped) and pretend that the universe was full of perfectly round and controlled things. But we knew that these calculations relied on a fundamentally flawed version of things, because the Earth is not a Perfect Sphere. Reality is not the same as the ideal world we used for our math.
When we are working with our dogs, we often forget that the Earth is Not a Perfect Sphere. But we often try to fit things into that ideal mold.
Take dog reactivity, for example. In a Perfect Sphere world, we would limit our dog’s exposure to other dogs, and keep our dog under threshold 100% of the time. Well, if we live in an apartment building in a busy neighborhood, there’s a high probability that we can’t prevent our dog from going over threshold sometimes. Or with separation anxiety, we talk about protocols that involve not being gone for more than a few minutes over the course of several weeks (which is impossible for most humans to do).
Positive reinforcement practices preach that we should never jerk on the leash or yell at our dog for counter surfing, but a lot of times this doesn’t leave room for the fact that humans make mistakes (because humans are not Perfect Spheres either). We tell families with 4 children that they need to do multiple training sessions a day and be completely consistent with their protocols for jumping/mouthing puppies. We say the dog needs to be walked 12 miles a day or exercised with a flirt pole for 40 minutes twice daily. We ask people to buy 12 baby gates and 4 snuffle mats and cover all their windows and buy special feeders and 2 different muzzles and to have a rotating schedule at exactly 16 minutes per dog. And obviously, I’m exaggerating. (Everyone knows you only need 11 baby gates, am I right?!)
But we HAVE to be aware that in our pet training/behavior world, there usually aren’t Perfect Spheres. We might have to train that fearful dog in the middle of a house with yelling kids or a street with garbage trucks. We may have to focus on management, and emotionally handle knowing that in most environments, we can’t just “fix” our dog’s behavior. We have to create and implement training plans in the real world, and support each other as humans who are frustrated, imperfect, and sometimes grieving about our dog’s issues. We need to really think about what training looks like in the real world, and work for that.
Remember, the Earth is Not a Perfect Sphere, and neither are you! Celebrate your successes, end on a high note, and don’t get frustrated. Know that your training will still work even if your training sessions are not “perfect". And, please know that sometimes it’s OK to go into another room, close the door, take a deep breath and give yourself a break. The biggest and most important thing you can do is try, and we appreciate every human out there who is making an effort to work with their dog and give them a chance at their best life.
So, let’s appreciate each other (and our dogs!) for the lumpy, oddly shaped, imperfect and wonderful beings we are!
We will always remember that training takes place in the real world, not an ideal one.