The Puppiness Project – It Doesn’t Matter How You Learn; Just Learn

Gretchen Rubin wrote in The Happiness Project about the year she spent “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy.” The Puppiness Project is my attempt to learn the same from Honey, my Golden Retriever, and Chérie, our visiting Foster Pup.

hound mix and golden retriever

First I’ll teach you how to pose for pictures. Then I’ll teach you how to write captions.

A Tale of Two Doggies

Honey has spoiled me.

She’s smart, eager-to-please, and an enthusiastic learner.

I’m not a good trainer. I get flummoxed easily. I don’t have good body awareness. I can’t hang onto treats, a clicker, and a leash at the same time.

But Honey makes me look good. She learns things before I even know I want to teach them to her.

Chérie is new in our house. Most of my time with her has concentrated on making sure she didn’t pee indoors, keeping her from playing with Honey while her stitches healed, and exposing her to scary things (shutting drawers, flapping towels, strange noises) in a gentle way. I hadn’t taught her much except to come to me when I coaxed her.

I could not lure her into a sit. She did not take treats from my hand. And outdoors, she was constantly distracted by smells.

So when our trainer suggested teaching her targeting, rewarding her for looking at a scary person, and training her to rest quietly on a mat while out on a walk, my stomach lurched. I’m ashamed to say it, but I couldn’t imagine Chérie learning all those things. And I couldn’t imagine teaching them to her.

Luckily (or not, if you’re an anarchist), I listen to authority figures. And when a six-foot plus man tells me to teach a dog three things, I gotta do it.

It’s working.

hound mix and Golden Retriever on agility equipment

I don’t know about writing captions. But I could see my way to those treats a lot better without that floofie old tail in my face.

It took a while, but Chérie is becoming more excited about treats and has gotten better at taking them from my hand without dropping them (Honey taught her that, ha ha!). She taught herself to sit for a treat, probably by watching Honey, and I’m trying to get it on cue.

I had trouble recognizing that she was learning because she moves so slowly and deliberately.

When I say “touch” to Honey, she bounces in the air and pushes her nose, hard, into my hand. Believe me, you know she’s done it.

When I say “touch” to Chérie, she slowly and gently brushes my hand with her nose.

Honey hears me say, “Go to bed” and she looks for the nearest rug or dog bed and plops herself down so fast the dish towels move in the breeze.

Chérie doesn’t yet link the cue to the action. But she’s figured out that sitting on her towel gets her treats and I know the rest will come soon.

Once I stopped expecting Chérie’s learning style to match Honey’s, I was able to see how smart she really is. And I became more enthusiastic about teaching her.

Learning How to Learn

What do you do if you’d like to go on a sailing adventure but you don’t know how to sail? Well, you have to learn.

Over the winter, Mike and I spent every day reading sailing textbooks. When spring came, we took a few hours of lessons from our Community sailing center. And then, we spent every weekend pushing a small sailboat up and down the lake.

Learning something entirely new is hard. Learning it with your husband can be… well, let’s just say it’s been interesting.

I’m intimidated learning beside my husband.

He has excellent recall of what he’s read. He can look at diagrams of knots and understand how they go together. And once he learns something, he has it for life.

But I’ve held onto something our first sailing instructor told us after hearing me lament about how much faster Mike was picking things up. He said, “Often the person who takes longer to learn, learns it better.”

I’m trying to remember that although I learn differently from Mike, I’m not learning less.

I can’t bring myself to drill like he does. Approaching a mooring ball over and over again for practice is not my idea of a good time. And spending an afternoon tying knots? Forget it.

But I learn more just by being out in the world. The wind makes more sense to me now. I can see the breeze approaching, on land or the water, before I feel it on my skin. I know intuitively that taking the jib down to approach the dock more slowly on a windy day will work, even if I’ve never read it in any of my books.

I’m not learning less. I’m just learning differently. Like Chérie.

Learning Mischief

Now that I’ve opened my eyes to the different ways Honey and Chérie learn, I’m noticing that much of what they learn from each other comes from mischief.

Honey became much less scared of the teeter board when Chérie butted into the middle of a training session and sat down on one end to get a treat.

Chérie got to experience some goofy fun when she learned from Honey how to dig a hole in the garden. (No, it’s not the first thing I’d teach either of them. But it’s never a bad thing to see a “fraidy dog” having fun, is it?)

So maybe I need to learn a new skill too: turning training into mischief-making so we can all have more fun.

And worry less about how we learn and care more that we all keep learning.

Have you ever faced challenges related to learning styles? For yourself? Or your dogs?

Welcome to Monday Mischief – The pet blog hop that wraps up the weekend! This Blog Hop is brought to you by Alfie’s Blog, Snoopy’s Dog Blog, My Brown Newfies and Luna, A Dog’s Life and you can read more about how to link up here.

Monday Mischief Pet Blog Hop
photo credit: ronnie44052 via photo pin cc


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  1. Hiya! Thought I’d come and sniff you out. I agree, making training as fun as possible is a great thing and if the scared dog is having fun … looks like you’re training more than you’re giving yourself credit for! The fact that a scared dog wants to please you is worth a lot, so you should give yourself a pat on the back. She obviously feels safe with you. That’s the first step. Trust … after that, she may not be as enthusiastic as your lab, but it’s a new trick, give it time and you’ll be able to race them!

  2. Good luck with the sailing. We like the idea of learning through mischief. Hope your weekend was good and that you are having a great Monday.
    Best wishes Molly

  3. I’m figuratively in the same boat as you. Husband learns much quicker and thinks more logically than I (although I do tend to think logically, just not ‘man’ logically) and he intimidates me. Which is why when I want to learn something I look for a different teacher. :-)

    Some people can learn by reading, I need to learn more by doing. I can read all the dog books in the world that tell me how to train my dog, but I learn best when shown.

    I think once you know your learning style, you can succeed must faster.

  4. When it comes to training, I’ve got a lot to learn! I think, in general, I have a lot to learn. I love to learn “things” but I’m not a big fan of learning life lessons. lol. btw, I love the Puppiness Project, they’re my favorite posts of the week.

  5. Every dog is so different, I imagine I am going to be greatly humbled when I eventually adopt a second dog. Shiva has so much drive and natural motivation that if I ever have a dog who is a little more independent or hesitant about learning, I am probably going to be thrown. It’s not fair at all to say you are not a good trainer. One of the reasons Honey is so eager to please is because of all the work you did with her from the time she was a puppy. You understand dogs and relate to them in a way most people do not. That’s 80 percent of the work there!

    I am great at reading things and retaining what I read but am terrible at applying this knowledge. I probably could teach someone else to do a task long before I could ever do it myself. Part of the problem of living too much in my mind and not enough in my body. 😛

  6. With my husband every day. It has always been difficult to know if he is listening to me by his response. One day I was venting with some past anger and frustration of something to happened to me and what seemed like was out of the blue, he started talking about how he was going to hang my punching bag up. I mean going through the mechanics of it and I was totally floored at first. What the heck was he talking about? Wasn’t he listening?????? Then it struck me how he problem solved my anger because he was listening, it just wasn’t what I was prepared to hear.

    And of course with the dogs, every one of them has their own unique style and has to be catered to. I love that they are so individual and have their own personalities and training styles.

    I think going slower is better sometimes when it comes to learning, because it really sinks by and gets past the surface and you learn to become one with it. Be it the dogs or sailing or a marriage. Sometimes it is good to let it just soak in. :)

  7. I’m sorry to say I used to compare Rufus The Blur, and now Georgia, to Jordan all the time. He was such a smart dog. When he came to us at a grand old age of 2 and something, he was scared of the breeze and didn’t know a thing but boy! Was he a fast learner. I think he more or less learnt everything I wanted to teach him in the way of “life skills” in the first 3 months. Eventually, I just spoke to him in full sentences because he understood them! Getting him over being fraidy however, took much longer.

    Georgia is what I would call “street smart”. She’s a survivor. While she doesn’t take that long to learn tricks, she’s very obstinate about “performing” them. Luckily, I’m not looking for a performing dog 😉

    Can I just say I love your sailing instructor. I’ve taken 9 years to learn some of the capoeira “tricks” that the young ones learn in a year and that can do terrible things to my self esteem. But then, I remind myself, I’m still here! And most of the young ones are gone from lack of perseverance and motivation! So pat pat on the back for you and me, Pamela! Slow and steady does sometimes win the race :) BTW, your man and my man? Twins.

  8. Well, in PreK, we have all different kinds of learning styles, and I have four dogs all with different learning styles here. I’m very aware that there are different ways of learning, and yet I’m still really hard on myself when I can’t learn certain things. Actually, if I’m really honest, I don’t attempt certain things if I’m afraid I won’t be able to do them well!

    And I’m laughing because I have a somewhat similar post to this one ready for Thursday! lol You’re always reading my mind!

  9. All dogs learn differently. Just like people, they all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. In my opinion, the very best trainers recognize this and adjust training accordingly. They also understand that progress may be in baby steps.

    I guess maybe because we have three dogs who all learn differently, it is easy for us to notice their different learning styles. In hunt tests, Thunder will learn from mistakes he has made. When he is not allowed to finish a test, (those are the rules), he seems to understand he made a mistake and will avoid making it again the next test. Storm, you can teach her something and she will need to re-learn it eventually. May be a case of selective memory too…who knows? lol Freighter we are still learning about him.

  10. Elka seems to learn through observation some of the time. She waves her left paw at a door as I reach for the doorknob, though I’m right handed. She’s looking at the television screen right now, though I’m not sure what she’s getting out of it. She reacts well to gestures; pointing for direction, patting for “up”, be it just paws up or up onto the couch to lay down. It makes me try to pay attention to my body language, where my feet are pointing, that kind of thing.

    I’m glad to hear that your ‘fraidy dog is having some fun!

  11. I really like watching dogs learn from each other – the same way we as humans learn from each other! It sounds like Cherie is doing great!

    My hubby and I both learn quickly, but he is much better at reading something and understanding it – I definitely learn by doing. (I’m really bad about skimming instructions and then trying to figure things out on the fly . .drives my hubby crazy!!)

  12. So much wonderful stuff going on in this post. I think the things you were teaching Cherie when you didn’t think you were teaching her much, were actually the most important things! Not being afraid of new items and being housebroken will definitely make her more adoptable.

    Wonderful that you found a trainer who figured out the best way to get through to her, and wonderful of you to take your foster dog to a trainer.

    As for you and your hubby learning at different rates, we all learn differently. The fact that you are taking the time to learn is what counts. To me, I also learn at different speeds depending on how interested I am in the subjuect. Show me a new dog training technique – I’m eager to try. Show me how to program the new DVD player – well that’s going to take me a while to get it right.

    I’m glad Cherie and Honey are also teaching each other new things. What a wonderful experience it is for both of them. :-)

  13. Hi Pamela,

    That’s a great thing to remember that all dogs/people learn differently. It reminds me of one of the teaching credential classes I sat in years ago when they talked about kinesthetic vs auditory vs visual learners.

    Sometimes when I get frustrated working with my puppies I just have to remember Toby is not Dublin or Apache…so on and so forth.

    Thanks again for the reminder!

  14. Great blog on training your dogs. You have a lot of patience.