Behavioral Flexibility is a Many Splendored Thing

dog stretching

Reactive. Intelligent. Aggressive. Distracted. Trainable.

These are very big and very broad labels that are used to describe a range of behaviors. Like all broad labels, they do not help us or our dogs. Worse, these labels often inaccurately frame – and thus limit – our understanding of dog. When we take the time to explore and understand that a dog who is defensively reacting to a stranger approaching is very different from a dog who reacts to the sight of any dog with excited frustration, we can make good choices about how to help the dog.

“Behavioral flexibility” is another big label that can confuse things. What does behavioral flexibility even mean? Taken at face value, it appears that the dog can be flexible in terms of behavior and responses. But, as with all things, the Dog is in the details. Flexible how? In what specific ways? And is that always desirable? Are there times when being inflexible is more appropriate or helpful to the dog?

Running an agility course, you might be very glad to have a dog who can adjust in a heartbeat to follow your directions, especially if you miscue or change your mind. That kind of cognitive and physical flexibility is a gift! But imagine that same dog just as readily switching gears from attending to your cues and taking a sharp left to follow the butterfly that just went by. Hmmm. Is behavioral flexibility good or bad?

What if the dog hears and understands your change, but cannot physically make the adjustment in time? Lacking the motor skills to make rapid changes, the dog just has to keep on doing what he’s committed to, and then try to adjust after the fact. Understanding something doesn’t lead to being able to physically do it, especially on short notice!

What if the dog understands what you’ve asked but is upset by the change in what he thought was going to happen? This is known as violation of expectations, and just like humans, dogs can react to having their expectations violated in ways that range from shut down to furious.

What if your dog will keep on keeping on, even when she meets with barriers to her goal? What if she keeps on even when she doesn’t get the desired results? Is that kind of persistence helpful? desirable? to be encouraged or discouraged?

Under the big umbrella of behavioral flexibility, there are types of flexibility. Your dog will have his own unique blend of cognitive, social, physical/motor flexibility, tolerance for violation of expectations, and tolerance for ambiguity (also known as an optimistic or pessimistic bias). Understanding how all of this affects your particular dog and their learning, as well as how your own flexibility plays a role, helps you become a better trainer.

My webinar, Green Eggs & Ham – and Dog Training? provides a great way to dive into understanding your dog in a new way. It’s not just about practicing here, there and everywhere. Behavioral flexibility is not just a matter of enough successful repetitions using enough chicken and cheese. It begins within the individual dog. As always, we and our dogs are most successful when we truly see the dog, and work with the dog in front of us.

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