Practice, keep those skills sharp

This was printed in a shorter version Northern Virginia Today and was published in April 2018.

dog holding a newspaper in mouth clipart

I was subbing in a fifth-grade class when a student asked me the time.  I suggested he check the clock above the door. The student informed me he could not read (analog) clocks.  This student has been in the school since Kindergarten.  I know telling time with an analog clock is taught there.  Numerous times I have subbed for teachers and I have taught telling time on analog clocks.  I have used other skills kids knew to show them how to apply it to telling time: half and quarter circles for quarter, half, and three-quarter hours, counting by fives around the face then by ones to get to times like 3:48, etc.  By the time I was done with these lessons I was able to get most students able to correctly complete worksheets and play “Tell the time” games.  I also learned why this student could no longer tell time with an analog clock.

A parent with a child between my two in ages and in the same school system complained to me how upset he was certain things were not being taught anymore. He had a laundry list of things he wanted the schools to teach.  Well my son graduated in 2017 and my daughter is in middle school but taking one high school class in the mornings.  I got my hands on the curriculum (all online) and shared the highlights with him. Based on his grade, this child had already covered many lessons Dad insisted he had not. I talked to my daughter who told me she learned many of the things the father insisted were not being taught in 7th grade.  Since she is two years ahead of peers in math, she said the student would have gotten the lessons in 9th grade.   The father’s kid was in 11h grade. The rest of the topics would be covered the next school year. The more we talked the reason why the child could not do these basic skills that had already been taught became clear.

Let’s look further at the two students and learn just why.

The fifth-grader admitted to not using analog clocks outside class.  He passed the assessments and stopped using those skills.  His parents never had him use analog clocks outside of school.

The father admitted he had no idea what the kid was learning so he was not able to reinforce practical lessons outside of school. He never checked the syllabi for his classes.  He did not go to open house nights and listen to what was being covered that school year.  He did not ask to look at homework, etc.  He had no idea what the kid was learning.

Now, I am not a perfect parent but I know the importance of practicing skills.  I also know the more work I do as a parent the easier it is for the schools.  Therefore, I worked with many lessons even before the kids were in the grades the skills would be taight.  Even in early elementary school we discussed budgets, taxes, how to calculate sales tax, the risks of credit cards, etc.  We practiced cursive writing.  Yes this is not taught to the level it was when I was a kid, but many teachers are trying to address cursive.  If not practiced, the kids will lose these skill.

It has been over 35 years since I played violin, I cannot play it now.  Why?  I lost those skills.  However, I can drive a car though it has been over thirty years since I took driver’s ed.  Why?  I drive almost every day. I am always using these skills.

Now apply this to dogs.

A former client called to complain about his untrained dog. The dog last saw me when he was about 16 weeks old.  It was now five years later. I encourage owners to keep practicing even when the dog appears to know what is expected.  Sadly, once the lessons are over I have no control over what owners practice, or not. When I asked questions, I learned the couple had not practiced leash skills for five years.  The dog forgot all his leash manners. The wife was told to start exercising for her health and decided to walk the now larger, adult dog.  She was pulled over.

Another client was not practicing between sessions and was upset her dog was not improving.  Not only that but she was not doing the needed management of the environment to prevent the dog from performing these behaviors while we worked through them.  There is no way a dog can learn and retain the lessons if we are not doing the work.

A mistake many make is stopping all practice when behaviors have been given a few times with one or two cues.  A few sits the first time cued after a couple of sessions does not mean your dog knows what is expected.  Completing a course of training classes does not mean your dog is trained. This is the time we need to keep working.

Work the behaviors in to your daily routine. Determine how you want the behaviors molded into good manners such as not jumping for greetings. Take your dog to other places for quiet practice. Highly reinforce when the dog gives you the behavior when you did not ask.  Make sure you go back and refresh if you see the beginnings of the behaviors slipping.

My oldest dog is going to be 11 in May of 2018.  Even he gets lessons refreshed every now and then.  Yes, things he has been solid with for years we still brush up.  This is why he has remained solid with these behaviors for years.

The old saying “Practice makes perfect” is inaccurate because nothing is perfect.  However, practice helps keep needed skills in place and improving.  If you do not practice, refresh and apply needed skills to daily life, do not be shocked when the behaviors are not there when you need them.

Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training.

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