When I first rescued Boo, I had many goals for him. But – because of who he was and what he later showed me – I had to adjust my goals and devise a different approach to training him.
In my book, A Dog Named Boo: How One Dog and One Woman Rescued Each Other – and the Lives They Transformed Along the Way, I detail many of Boo’s limitations, our training hurdles, and the amazing things he did without being perfect.
The concept of successive approximations, which means we have a goal in terms of what we are trying to teach a dog and that we understand that if the dog’s behavior lands anywhere along the path to this goal it is good and worthy of reward, is often only applied to a specific behavior or trick we are teaching.
Anyone who has potty-trained a puppy has used a type of successive approximation.
We get puppies out often so they can make the right pee and poop choices. The puppy’s bladder size and muscle control requires us to lower the bar for them to succeed then we slowly raise the bar to achieve our final goal. By patiently increasing the length of time between persistent outings while accepting and rewarding closer and closer to perfect behavior we succeed.
In short, the Three P’s are the heart of successive approximations.
This is successive approximation on a micro level—one behavior. Boo taught me that Patience, Persistence and Perfect-is-not-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be needed to be applied on the macro level—to the whole dog.
In A Dog Named Boo it is clear that I had to utilize the Three P’s when training Boo on every level. It was a year before he understood to signal us that he had to go out for a pee or poop. Another year-and-a-half was spent teaching him to take treats outside the house and lay down in a public place.
The lessons of Boo are vast in terms of so many elements of human and canine interactions but the biggest training lesson he taught me always comes down to patience, persistence and perfect-is-not-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be.
The Three P’s can apply to dogs who have special needs like Boo, who are reactive, stressed, need remedial socialization, and pretty much any dog who will be destined to work as a service or therapy dog.
Patience refers to starting out with an assessment of the dog as an individual. Who is this dog? What is he telling me? What does she like? What scares him? What motivates her?
These are just a few of the beginning questions for which the answers are not always on the surface and often take exploration. Take your time and let your dog show you who they are. Boo’s physical and cognitive limitations made it difficult for him to answer these questions quickly or at all sometimes.
When he wouldn’t lay down on command I was told to just make him do it without thinking about why he wasn’t doing it. When he was afraid in the truck I was told to just let him work it out on his own. I had to be very patient and slow his training way down, ask what he was telling me and what he needed, then shift things to accommodate Boo so he could learn at his own pace how to lay down, how to love the truck, and how to be a confident dog in so many other areas.
Persistence in Boo’s case was more than just repetition. It did require practice, but Boo showed me it has to be done at the speed and intensity that each different dog can handle—if it takes your dog a year to get where other dogs get in three months then so be it.
We get caught up in so many comparisons of one dog to another, yet one of the greatest gifts you can give your dog is to only compare them to where they started and how far they’ve come.
For Boo to achieve his goal of visiting kids, it was almost two years of outings that slowly worked on his basic skills and treat-taking abilities in public. I had to craft alternative cues that Boo could follow and understand, much like I advise clients whose dogs are visually or hearing impaired. They can and will learn their basics and maybe even more than one might imagine, but it will have a different shape and form from traditional cues and signals.
Letting go of perfect is probably the hardest part of this equation.
Each dog will reach their fullest potential—in other words their personal perfect—once we simply focus on each successive approximation as its own victory.
When I ask Boo for the paw command he swipes his paw in the air as if he is searching for a light switch in the dark. It in no way compares to the perfect easy-going dogs who leisurely reach out and gently place their paw in your hand. But when Boo does it you can see his effort and sense of accomplishment in his simple, wobbly gesture and it brings a smile in spite of the imperfection and probably more so because of it—like everyone cheering for the little engine who could—or in this case the little dog who could.
As canine advocates and guardians, our job is to patiently observe what our dogs tell us then persistently and at their speed craft a training routine that suites them so they can become the best they can be given who they are.
Like Boo, all dogs have potential. Our job is to find it and nurture it.