Learning New Skills is Hard!

November 7, 2022
A cartoon woman holds her head in her hands. A thought bubble shows images of a calendar, money, baby gate, clicker, and fighting dogs. Text on the image reads "Learning New Skills is HARD. Let's Talk about it!"

Learning new skills is hard work, that’s something I emphasize to my clients throughout their early days in my training programs and even months into the process. Building new ways of living with your dogs is not something  that happens overnight. After all, you’ve often spent years or even decades building the habits that we are now seeking to change together. At the same time I’m asking you to learn all sorts of new information and mechanical skills to help you be successful in forging new ways of interacting with your dogs. That is an overwhelming and frustrating process for anyone. I get it, I wasn’t always a dog trainer either, and those new skills were hard at first. So what can you do when life gets really hard and you have to learn new things? Let’s talk about it, but to do that, I’m going to let you in on a personal story first.

Walking in Your Shoes:

Lately I have been walking in my client’s shoes a little more fully again  as struggles with my hands and neck require me to learn new ways of living and being and doing. It has impacted every facet of my daily life including dog training and just living with dogs. I fumble treats with hands that lack full sensation and I’m having to explore new ways to walk my dogs because I’m likely to drop a leash.  I’m actually writing this blog post right now by typing with my voice which is one of probably 15 new skills I’m working on at the moment. 

This little predicament of mine has gotten me thinking about how my clients feel when aggression strikes in the home and life gets turned upside down. It’s happening to you and you don’t exactly get a say in the matter. All you can do is address it and now there are all sorts of expenses and time commitments and SO MUCH change. Plus it’s often hard to find the help you need and know how to respond to new challenges, making everything harder.  My goodness do I understand all of you right now. In June scary things started happening to my body and it has taken until November to finally feel like I’m on the right path to getting help. It hasn’t been intuitive walking into these uncharted waters and there has been a lot of struggle along the way. 

Usually I make a habit as a dog trainer to ensure that I am teaching myself new skills so that I always have renewed empathy for what you are going through as we work together. But what I have realized these past few months is that  it feels completely different when it’s not your choice.  When you get backed into a corner and you have to learn new things whether you want to or not. It is truly exhausting and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wanted to be typing this post with my hands right now. Because this is by no means an intuitive thing for me. Every sentence requires thought. I have to remember new voice commands for punctuation, starting a new line, and formatting things correctly.  Everything that was intuitive about writing is gone at the moment. Yet I can’t go back to the old way and it’s not just typing, it’s my whole life. I’m on a long road back to normalcy or whatever the new normal is going to look like, just as my client rosters of multi dog households with complex behavior needs are. And just like you, I don’t get to know the end result from the outset, because it’s impossible to say. It’s a tough spot to live in and I feel for you. I really do. 


Your First New Skill at Wise Mind Canine: 

One of the first assignments all of my clients get is to teach a training language (Part 1 & Part 2) to their dog so that they can communicate clearly and effectively during training. On the surface it seems simple, say the word, pause , deliver the treat to your dog in a specific way.  This is a foundational skill upon which everything else we do together is built. I imagine many of you rolling your eyes when I ask you to practice this skill without a dog. It feels silly right?  But often this is the hardest thing that I’m going to teach you. It requires you to think about every movement and sound that you are making in a controlled manner because dogs notice movement before the sounds we make. To be a clear teacher for them you must change your human tendency to speak and move at the same time. Time and time again I watch clients get frustrated as they try to learn the skill because it sounds so easy, until you try it.  

You’ll often spend weeks or even months thinking and focusing on this small act of rewarding your dog when they have done something correctly. Often you’ll slip back into old habits and catch yourself doing it incorrectly. But that’s where the magic starts because it’s a sign that you’re gaining awareness of what you are doing and why you are doing it. I love that moment when I see you catch yourself because important learning is happening. Then one day with lots of practice and lots of mistakes along the way, this act of communicating with your dog clearly about the reward becomes second nature.  You don’t need to think about it anymore.  It’s your new way of being  and your canine learner thanks you for it. 

Right now I find myself learning all sorts of new mechanical skills that have to be incorporated into my daily life. New ways to move my hands, grip things, bend to pick things up off the floor, consciously focusing on how my neck and shoulders are positioned and so much more. These things have to become my new way of functioning and they always sound simple. Until I try them. I swear, the day I can spread out my hands on a flat surface and then pull my fingers together smoothly with the right form will be such a happy moment. But I’m also beginning to get those magic moments for myself, like when I realize why I’m not gripping something well and can adjust how I’m holding my fingers. Sure I didn’t get it right the first time, but it’s a sign that the skill is coming along, slowly but surely. 

A book sits on a metal book holder with a book light attached. A right hand in a black compression glove with blue rubber grippers on the index finger and thumb rests on the page of a book.

My new reading gear, compression gloves, rubber grips for my fingers, and a book stand so I don’t have to hold it. Something so simple requires so many new steps at the moment.

But it’s Not Just One Skill:

The hard part for you is that I’m not just asking you to learn how to reward your dog the right way. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. I’m also asking you to change your home environment to prevent unwanted behavior, often to ensure safety in a home where mistakes can have huge consequences. Suddenly you’re walking through a maze of baby gates and needing to follow new procedures for basic things like mealtime or taking your dogs out for a walk. Nothing is the same anymore and it’s often more complicated, usually temporarily. Then when safety is assured, and we have stopped unwanted behavior I start asking you to learn all sorts of things about living with dogs, like how to meet their needs and understand their body language. Meanwhile you also start to learn how to teach basic skills that scaffold on each other until we’re teaching things that are more and more complex. It’s a lot, and it’s a process, when you’re probably already feeling overwhelmed. Please know that I know that this is hard for you and that mistakes are going to happen. 

To me this whole behavior change process through dog training feels really reminiscent of the things I’m learning to do in physical and occupational therapy right now. I spent years moving my body and doing activities in a certain way and now I’m having to learn how to do it all differently. How do I carry my neck and shoulders when I walk or sit? How do I effectively grab things between my fingers? How do I read a book or type on the computer or do any number of things that we need to accomplish in everyday life? How the heck do I remember all of these things at once? How do I live my life alongside all of these changes and physical pain? How do I change my routines and environment to make things run more smoothly? Where do I fit all of these occupational and physical therapy exercises into my life?  It’s a lot, and it doesn’t stop despite the fact that I have a business to run and a life to live. Just like you can’t magically stop living in a behaviorally complex multi dog household while living your life. 

Learning New Skills is HARD but Adjusting Your Mindset Can Make it Easier: 

  • Give yourself and your dogs some grace. What you’re doing isn’t easy and it’s going to take time. 
  • Embrace mistakes as a part of the learning process. Mistakes aren’t a reason to berate yourself, just keep trying. Laughing can help.
  • It’s okay to feel frustrated or angry or sad or like you don’t have the energy to tackle a problem at the moment.  Give yourself a break, regroup and try again later.
  • Celebrate those magic moments when you notice your own mistake before your instructor can tell you. It means you’re learning and growing.
  • Reward yourself for little victories and your commitment to the process. 
  • Break up your training exercises throughout your day so they’re not overwhelming and it’s easier to do them correctly. Long-duration training exercises aren’t your friend or your dog’s friend. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions or get help from your trainer. I want you to succeed and know that every learner is different, human or dog. Your timeline is the right timeline.
  • Remember that progress isn’t linear and regressions don’t mean you lost everything you learned before. It’s just harder to see for the moment.
  • Sometimes goals need to change. That’s okay. We pivot as we gain more information and adjust to the situation in front of us.

I am always honored to go on these journeys of behavior modification with my clients. Hopefully hearing my recent personal experiences in physical and occupational therapy helps you feel seen and heard on your path of new skills. I know first-hand how having kind and supportive teachers makes a difference on this hard road of unknown outcomes. This is always at the forefront of my mind as I teach you. So here’s to a better tomorrow, learning new things and enjoying every little victory along the way. I know I had one today when I typed this blog post with my voice!

Feel free to share your victories or tips for making learning new skills easier in the comments. I’d love to hear from you! 


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