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Intentional Impact

by | Nov 16, 2016 | 0 comments

When you read this my dogs and I will be on the road, on our final stretch home from Cynosport World Games in Scottsdale, Arizona.

This week was weird. My person was at home, and the strangest most emotional (terrifying) election I’ve ever experienced happened on the eve of the first day of the week-long marathon that is Cynosport. I had good intentions; I went to bed early and turned off the tv, only to awake to the news of our new president-elect at 1:30am, and then lay awake until it was time to walk my first course at 6:30.

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Idgie doing her thing in Scottsdale.

I hope you’re still reading, because this really isn’t meant to be a political post. As a rule, I talk about dogs and dog training here; but if this isn’t your first time reading my blog you probably know that life and events often influence what I talk about. The election is that thing this time.

This is your chance to exit. You may be made aware of my viewpoint on the election soon, and I will be deleting any comments that have anything to do with that (positive or negative). You have been warned. 

Impact and Intent 

What we mean to do is important. Every single person who voted in this election meant to do what was best for our country. Every single one. I know that to be true. In the same sense, the spectator I saw today who was popping his malinois by the collar repeatedly was meaning to help his dog learn not to pull into that collar. The person whose dog went off course in Grand Prix finals meant, with all of her heart, to cue that dog otherwise. People’s intentions do matter, and our intentions in training are no different. When I recognize that everyone means to do good it’s easier for me to offer up compassion to dog handlers and trainers I work with. When my intentions go awry in training or on course I can offer myself that same compassion; realizing my intentions were in the right place.  Intentions matter, and so does recognizing them. Here’s the bad (good?) news:

Impact actually does matter more. 

The man with the malinois drove his dog away from him and eventually relented; I watched as he was dragged to the car. Many, many handlers who ran their hearts off suffered disqualifying faults in Grand Prix finals. Voters who do not hate people unlike them have elected a man who has acted as though he does. The best of intentions might have a terrible impact.

Accidental Outcomes 

I can think of a few times that I set out to train one behavior and wound up with another entirely. Understanding intentions and impact has been an important lesson for me as a trainer. As a rookie clicker trainer I taught Idgie to scoot backwards in a down position when I intended to teach her to walk backwards. Felix has learned to throw his front legs up in a dramatic fashion when I intended to teach him a nice clean “sit pretty.” The good news is these behaviors are cuter than my original intentions; which is why I reinforced them. If these were the only stories I had of intentions and impact not lining up we as trainers wouldn’t really need to concern ourselves with the concept. But there are more insidious ways intent and impact can split apart.

When I worked in people’s homes with their pet dogs I saw so many occasions of invisible fence systems having negative impact on behavior that I eventually formed a policy regarding it with my clients (it was simple: ditch the thing or get help elsewhere). One sweet-as-pie yellow labrador developed severe stranger-directed aggression after he broke the fence to say hi to a man walking by (he was friendly, you see). The electric shock he experienced when he crossed the barrier was associated with visiting a stranger; damage done. An equally lovely-tempered Aussie broke her fence to visit the UPS man. It took a year of solid behavior modification (and abolishment of the electric collar) to heal her aversion to humans in uniform–any uniform–after that incident. Similarly, I worked with countless dogs who developed dog-directed reactivity after their owners tried controlling their boisterousness with a prong collar. The list truly does go on and on.

The point here is not to say that these tools can never have the intended impact; the point is to say that intent does not inherently influence impact. Action does. What we mean to do matters little compared to what we actually do. Intentions are not what we write in history books or training logs; impact is.

Intentional Impact 

So, what do we do? How can we be sure the impact we intend is the impact that occurs? The way I see it, whether we are talking pivotal elections or behavior change, the steps are the same.

  • Know what you mean to have happen. This is where you get clear on your intentions. Example: control my excited dog on walks.
  • Be aware of what your options are, and examine their respective impacts. Example: a prong collar, head collar, and front-connection harness will all help you control your dog. They all have different impacts in addition to the one desired. 
  • Check your impact against your intentions frequently. Are your actions creating the impact you’d like to see? Are they creating any unwanted impact? Adjust accordingly whenever necessary. Example: the addition of a prong collar stopped the dog’s pulling but increased his reactivity to other dogs; adjustment is needed. 

When training your dog (or casting your vote) be sure your intentions and your impact line up. Otherwise you might need to spend considerable time and energy righting unintentional wrongs.

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