The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. ~ Commonly misattributed to Albert Einstein.
Einstein may not have actually said this quote, but it’s pretty fabulous and poignant anyway. I’ve been thinking about this lately as is applies to Nosework. What drives improvement? Is it really just “practice”? Why do some teams seem to skyrocket up and other struggle? After all, every dog can smell Birch. So what drives some teams to excellence but not the others?
The answer is in HOW you practice. There is Good Practice and there is Bad Practice. Good Practice will get you going in the right direction where Bad Practice could, at its very worst, completely derail a training program. But WHAT is “Good Practice”? Is it simply just doing something for 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell?
In trying to understand “Practice”, I found a super article in Psychology Today called “Some Ways to Practice Are More Perfect Than Others” by Susan Heitler Ph.D. Here’s the link in case you’re interested…. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201202/some-ways-practice-are-more-perfect-others
Dr. Susan Heitler asserts that there are a couple of things that impact our mastery of a subject (and incidentally these also apply to your dog!):
- The Quantity of Practice
- The Quality of Practice
Quantity of practice isn’t just hours as Gladwell might lead us to believe. Instead, Herman Ebbinhaus, a German Psychologist from the 1800’s, tells us that the most effective way to remember and to learn is in spaced out small pieces. So this means practice often.
But what about the Quality of Practice?
If Dr. Heitler was a dog trainer, she would definitely be on the bandwagon of splitting. She espouses breaking down tasks into small components, practicing them separately and then putting them back together again. She’s right, you know! Let’s pretend we do Obedience, not Nosework. We walk out into the ring with dumbbell in hand. You see, we are going to teach our dog to retrieve! So, we put the dog into a sit in heel position, throw the dumbbell and tell our dog, “Take It!” What happens? Well, if we are lucky, our dog runs out to the dumbbell, sniffs it, then runs around like a loon because he has been released from his Stay position. That’s not real effective is it? Interestingly though that is how Nosework is trained predominantly. I still go to teach seminars and people tell me how their dog lost confidence at the last clinician’s seminar because Mr. or Ms. So-and-so Trainer had all the novice dogs doing suspended hides. And we wonder why we struggle?
And what about Emotional State?
There has been a ton of research regarding the effectiveness of learning in a negative state. One such study, “The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory” by Chai M. Tyng, Hafeez U. Amin, Mohamad N. M. Saad, and Aamir S. Malik, tells us that the limbic system wrecks literal havoc on our ability to retain and learn when we are feeling negative emotions. Oh, and incidentally, the information from the sense of smell travels through the limbic system. I would imagine as a result, that there could be extensive implications on working a stressed dog in a scent sport.
The thing is, emotional states can be conditioned. Emotional states can also be triggered. And… stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol can stay in the system for an extended period of time. So, this means that not only do you need to break down your training into consumable pieces, but you also need to always attempt to practice in the right mental state.
Let’s pretend that I sit you down and I’m going to teach you Calculus. Don’t worry. You’ve had all of the foundations necessary to learn Calculus! Oh, and you happen to be afraid of spiders. I forgot that little bit. Well, unfortunately the only place I can teach you Calculus is in that shed in the back. And… that shed happens to be something like “Charlotte’s Web On Crack”. Every day you come to class. You wouldn’t, except that you happen to be under contract and you have no choice by the way. So you come to class. You sit there, picturing Charlotte and all of her friends having a party under your chair while I talk to you about functions and derivatives. What do you think would happen? Well, it’s unlikely that you would retain any of what I taught you, and more than likely you will have developed an uncanny distate for higher level mathematics. You are what you practice.
So what do we need to do?
This part is actually rather simple. Practice only in the state that you want to repeat. Whatever you practice, you will get. This includes not only just behavior, but also emotions. If you want a confident, take-no-prisoners searching machine as a partner, it’s essential to ensure that you ONLY practice in such a way that your dog can take on that superhero persona. Don’t put your dog in Charlotte Web’s Shack!
If you want crisp searches, do what Dr. Heitler talks about. Focus on the small pieces of your search. The start line. The focus. The drive to source. The flow. Build your foundations in the right emotional state. Always.