Don’t Know What to Do? Do Anything: Good for the Dog; Good for You

When A Dog Doesn’t Know What To Do

Honey loves when I bring out the clicker and treats. Lately, I’ve been bringing them along on our walks.

Honey the golden retriever sits on a park bench.

I’m not sure what to do next. If I were Pam, I’d just sit here and think about it for a while.

The other day, I saw a utility pole with a white band around it about three feet off the ground. I wondered if I could teach Honey to jump up and touch the white band with her nose.

I started by clicking and treating each time she tapped the pole with her nose. Then, only when she tapped it above the peg where the line worker attaches his step.

We ended on a high note and continued with our walk.

When we passed another utility pole, I wondered how quickly Honey would transfer what she learned at the last utility pole to this one.

What she did surprised me.

I knew Honey wouldn’t immediately associate the two utility poles. I knew we’d have to start again with rewarding her for touching the pole with her nose and working her way up. But I thought the previous experience would make the process go faster.

Instead, Honey looked confused. She didn’t know what I wanted from her.

Then she had an idea. She touched the door handle of the car parked next to the utility pole. No click. She did it again. And again.

Honey kept booping the car door trying to elicit a click and a treat.

Honey knew what business coaches, personal trainers, and therapists have been saying for years: when you don’t know what to do, just do something. Don’t worry about being wrong.

Honey the golden retriever sits near the entrance of Conley park.

I could welcome people to the park. I know how to do that.


Stop Trying To Figure Out What To Do

I spend a lot of time in my head. You may have noticed that about me.

When I need to do something, I ponder it for a long time. I write about it. I think about all the steps involved.

Sometimes I never get around to doing anything.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m afraid of failure. I might be even more afraid of success.

But I know that all my pondering doesn’t help me get things done.

Maybe it’s better to just do something and stop trying to figure out what to do first.

It works for Honey.

Honey the golden retriever comes when she's called.

Did you say Come? Now that’s something I know how to do.


Thought and Action Go Together For Dogs

Those of you who do clicker training with your dogs know just how it causes them to think. They’re motivated for the reward.

But they don’t just sit there trying to “think” of what you want from them. Instead, they start going through behaviors that have gotten clicked before:

  • sit
  • lie down
  • roll over
  • back up
  • lift a paw

Dogs don’t get embarrassed about being wrong. They just keep doing something until it gets a click and a treat. And then they try to figure out what got the last treat so they can get some more.

Here’s the thing. A dog’s actions help them get the reward they’re seeking.

Eventually, Honey will do an action that is close to what I want her to eventually do and I’ll reward her for it. Her action helps her figure out, in combination with my shaping her behavior with the clicker, what to do next.

And that’s what I should be doing too. Take one step, see what it teaches me. Perhaps I will get a reward that will encourage me to move on to another step. And another. Until I actually accomplish what I need to do.

It works for Honey to just do something when she doesn’t know what to do. So maybe it will work for me.

Your Turn: Are you good at taking action when you don’t know what to do? How about your dog? Does she sit and wait for clues or go boldly forward to try new things?

P.S. If you’re curious, the next day, Honey did jump up to touch the white band on the utility pole with her nose. I didn’t go back to the other pole to see if she would still boop the nearest car.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. I am pretty good at figuring out a plan, you have to when you live like we do. We fly by the seat of our pants a lot. Probably more than we should.

    • Good that you start with a plan. Even better that you can stop the planning and move forward in action.

      That’s where I get stuck. :)

  2. I had never done clicker training before adopting my new dog, and am just amazed at the results we’ve had with trick training. I love the analogy you use for life.

    • I discovered clicker training with my last dog, Shadow (the dog in my header). I was amazed to find how well it helped us deal with her dog reactivity.

      If you had told me that clicking and treating would keep her from barking and pulling every time a strange dog walked by, I wouldn’t have believed you. So even though we never did any trick training with Shadow, I consider it a life saver.

  3. I always start with a sit. Then I make it a prettier sit with an intent expression. I hold that until they say what they want. There’s no point in getting hot and bothered trying to figure out what they want, so I’m patient!

    • I can so see you doing this, Clowie. Making your second sit even prettier than the first.

      Sometimes Honey will lift her butt off the ground a few inches and plop down again just in case I didn’t notice the first sit.

      You dogs are very clever.

  4. You know me, I twaddle about it and talk about it, but ultimately I do nothing. I wish I was better at doing something!

  5. Haha! I must have broken dogs. Hurley generalizes everything. If I rewarded him for touching a light pole, I’m pretty sure he would ‘boop’ every light pole on our walk!

    Meanwhile, Sadie & Maggie were not clicker trained when they were younger. Getting them to offer behaviors for me to shape has been a challenge so we mostly lure when using the clicker. The only behavior they offer up to me when they don’t know what I want is to sit pretty and watch me.

    • I am totally imaginging Hurley booping light poles like Monk with a case of OCD. :)

      My last dog, Shadow, also would not have experimented with other behaviors to get a click. She’d just start sniffing. We did a lot of luring with her too.

      Isn’t every dog so different?

  6. Well, I’ve taught Asher to sit and am wondering what to teach him next. Can’t teach ‘down’ as that encourages lying down while they’re sitting. We’ve done a little bit of ‘touch’ so must get back to that. Spin is always fun and easy. Yes, I should just get the clicker and some treats and start with anything instead of sitting here pondering :)

    Frankie definitely goes boldly forward, Asher and Beryl are more cautious.

    • My Ruby very often lies down after a sit if we’re not moving on to something else. She has no sit-stay as she automatically turns it to a down-stay. As we’re not planning on doing anything competitively I’ve let it slide, but I would like to get more precision, I just don’t know how at this point.

      • I’m not a very precise trainer either. For me, the joy is in doing something fun with my dog, seeing how she learns, and watching her confidence grow. :)

    • I try to see what the landscape suggests for teaching Honey. Yesterday, we passed a basketball on the street and I taught her to push it with her nose.

      Maybe you have some driftwood in the dunes the pups could leap over?

      I don’t think it matters much if the behavior is useful. I just find the Honey enjoys the training process and it builds her confidence. I wonder if you’d find that with your more cautious greyhounds?

  7. That’s really cute that she was booping the car. I guess it’s a good thing it didn’t have an alarm turned on. I tend to just freeze when overwhelmed and unsure what to do next! But your advice is definitely good, and I do try to apply it when writing. Even if you don’t know what to write – just sit down and start typing!

    • When I was teaching journal-keeping workshops, I would assign timed writings where no one was allowed to lift the pen from the page. If they didn’t know what to write, they should write “I don’t know what to write.”

      You’re so right that just moving your fingers on the keyboard typing junk can get your mind working and lead you into serious work.

      Did you ever notice that the only people who don’t think writing is hard work are those who won’t do it? :)

  8. Oh bless honey:-)

  9. Very true, I think sometimes we all need to get out of our heads and stop worrying – however that is so much easier said than done!!

    I love the idea of Honey bopping the car handle – bless her!