Don’t Ask How Long. Ask How Many.

The most common question we get from dog owners is “How long is this going to take?” It’s a completely understandable question! You’re about to spend hundreds of dollars on dog training (which is charged by the hour!) and you want to know exactly how many of those hundreds of dollars you’re going to be forking over.

I give this question a lot of thought. Today on my afternoon walk, I was listening to an audiobook called “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. This book is about humans building habits and the author talks about how long it takes to build a good habit. The common idiom is “21 days!” However, this isn’t entirely true!

If your goal is to make a habit of going to the gym, perhaps you decide to go every day. You do this for 21 days. You might say that you now have that habit. However, maybe you’re only going on Fridays. In 21 days…that’s only 3 times. Nobody can claim they have a “going to the gym” habit when they have only been there a few times!

This concept really got me thinking about dog training. It is not how LONG it takes to train a behavior. The real question is…How many TIMES does the dog need to do the behavior for it to be considered learned? How much practice has the dog really had to create the proper brain paths to execute the desired behavior when the learned cue is present? In other words…does the dog sit when you say “sit”?

In another book I read recently, author Anders Ericsson discusses piano practice. This book is called ‘Peak’ and is all about building expertise. In this book, Ericsson tells a story about a pianist who stayed up practicing the night before a recital. The recital came and the pianist had many errors. He went to his teacher in frustration asking “how could this have happened?! I practiced all night!” What the teacher responded is gold:

How many times did you practice it correctly?

That was quite the light bulb for me. The amount of time spent practicing isn’t what makes the difference in learning. It’s how many times you practice it deliberately and correctly!

It is better to practice fewer, but correct, behaviors than it is to practice a lot but constantly make mistakes. The most obvious application of this to me is loose leash walking. You can take your dog on 5 walks a day for 2 months. Will they learn to walk nicely? Not if they aren’t practicing it each and every time! As soon as we let those old habits of pulling creep back in, we are now letting the dog practice pulling. It would be better to go on just a few walks a week with precision and deliberate paths to create success for the dog.

Therefore, the next time you’re wondering about how long this whole dog training thing is going to take, start to ask yourself how many times does the dog get to practice the good behavior versus practicing the bad behavior.