Practice? Liszt or Chopsticks

Years ago in another life I was a music teacher. In addition to class music lessons for many years, I also taught the piano and the flute. What’s this got do do with dogs, you might ask.

My pupils’ results showed I was quite a good music teacher. Being a piano teacher in the exam system was actually more about motivating my pupils to practice than anything else.

I could have been a rubbish piano player myself and created great performers. I could on the other hand have been a concert pianist unable to teach others to play the piano.

As a teacher, I found that talented but less conscientious pupils would generally make less progress than hard-working less talented pupils – with the somewhat annoying exception of one or two who seemed to excel with no evidence of any practice at all.

My lessons, in a nutshell, consisted of going over what the pupils had practiced during the previous week and setting the following week’s practice, with something that they found fun in between.

It’s very easy to get frustrated with a child who, week after week, is sent home with the same piano practice in his or her little practice notebook. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat the same thing over and over, week after week.

Frustrating for me, frustrating for the child and frustrating for the parents when they read the report.

I soon realized that for my own sanity during the couple of years when I taught piano lessons back to back in a boys’ school, that if I were to avoid some sort of breakdown I would need to find a way of getting them to enjoy practice. This in turn would give both the boys and myself enjoyable lessons.

I devised all sorts of little goals for them. I broke things down into tiny increments. I used reward systems based on what would motivate that particular child – some being a lot more competitive than others.

Some children perhaps shouldn’t have been learning the piano at all – they did it because their parents wanted them to. With these kids I would concentrate on making the lesson an enjoyable experience, making practice optional, and hope the parents didn’t complain when their now motivated child drove them mad by hammering out Chopsticks over and over on his piano at home.

There is such a big parallel with my days as a music teacher and my rebirth into dog training and behavior work. We can be brilliant dog trainers and behavior consultants, but unless we can motivate the human clients to practice we are doing worse than wasting our time (and theirs) – we are turning them off the whole process.

With learning a musical instrument we are teaching humans to do a lot of repetitions in order to perfect a skill for themselves. Working with dogs, we have an added complication – we are trying to motivate the humans themselves to do things ‘over and over’ whilst at the same time motivating their dogs to do things ‘over and over’ and for everyone to enjoy the process. We motivate the owner who in turn must motivate the dog.

One other thing my days as a music teacher taught me is the importance of a realistic goal. Not everyone has it in them to make a Ji Liu but will feel thrilled to master the easy version of Für Elise.

I strive to get dog owners to rejoice in the smallest of achievements. I strive to get them to see the necessity of multiple repetitions of certain things whilst also finding ways to get them to enjoy the process in a way that is appropriate and relevant to that particular person. I don’t say that I’m always successful and it’s an ongoing learning process.

downloadOwners then need to do the same for their dogs. The dogs need motivation to enjoy constant repetition and with most this involves some skill in the delivery of food.

It probably takes the average pupil several years to be able to play a listenable Für Elise (and the many steps towards that should also be great milestones).  With dogs, achieving changes in either behavior modification or trick training isn’t a quick business that happens by itself. It only happens with time, effort – and practice.

Just like those kids who only learn piano because their parents so desire, there are owners who feel they should take their dogs to classes to which their dog just isn’t suited. With certain dogs we just go for the Chopsticks option. Find a realistic level and rejoice that you have discovered something the dog loves and can excel at.

My main website.

About Theo Stewart

I work as a canine behaviour trainer - a sort of dog supernanny! I am a VSPDT (Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer) and a member of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers amongst many other things. I was originally involved in 'old-school' dog training and am a cross-over (I'm no spring chicken sadly). The advantages of having personally experienced both force and force-free methods is that I have proved over and over how much more effective and permanent positive methods are.
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