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I Can’t vs. I Don’t Know How

Posted on November 23, 2015 at 12:51 PM
Good morning!  It’s a beautiful, cold clear day in Mt. Shasta, and I’ve been thinking.  (I do that sometimes.)  Here’s my thought for the day:
When it comes to struggles, whether in dog training or “real life,” there’s a difference between saying It can’t be done vs. I can’t do it vs. I don’t know HOW.
There are things that truly can’t be done:  I can’t teach Tinker to fly like a bird (she doesn’t have wings) and I can’t fly like a bird myself without the aid of technology.  There are real and genuine limitations to what can be anatomically achieved.  Some people do have truly unrealistic expectations of their pets—or themselves, or the world around them.  Most of us are pretty good, though, and spotting the not-so-subtle difference between “My dog can’t learn to do algebra” and “My dog can’t learn to come when called reliably.”  In theory, one of these is genuinely impossible and the other one isn’t. 
I can’t do it” also has some validity.  We’re all unique individuals with different abilities and anatomies, and so are our dogs.  Though there are many tall, athletic people who can slam-dunk a basketball on a regulation court without a ladder, I am not one of them.  I’m not running a 4-minute mile anytime soon, either.  Tinker will probably never be the fastest dog in the agility ring (though she’s likely to be, pound-for-pound, among the most powerful.)  We have limitations, of course.  Except… there’s a catch there, too.
If something isn’t out of the realm of theoretical possibility, a good quick test is:  how sincerely and how hard have we tried?   Plenty of us pop off with various forms of  It can’t be done without having made the slightest effort to… train the dog, change our eating habits, make an effort to exercise more or take any of the steps necessary to achieve the so-called Can’t.  We’ve assumed the door is locked without even testing the knob.
If we look closely at I can’t do it (even if other people can) often what we find is—I can’t do it THAT WAY.  If there was a ticking time bomb and the only way to disarm it and save the world was to slam dunk a basketball, give me a ladder or a cherry picker and I’ve got it.  Obviously, that won’t work in a pro basketball game—it’s against the rules—but in real life with a dog in the home, if you can’t do it (that way) there’s almost always another way, or many ways, to achieve the same result.  Finding a way that’s a good fit for you and your dog is the trick:  maybe you can’t do it (or don’t want to do it) like Joe-- but you can do it like Bill or Mary or Jill.
Which comes to the last:  we can’t do anything if we don’t know HOW.  We have to know HOW.   If we don’t know HOW, we have to learn HOW.  HOW is the series of specific, concrete actions we need to DO to achieve our goals.
I hear too much can’t in dog training.  My dog can’t X, I can’t Y, dogs can’t really learn behavior G with method Z...  Curiously—though not surprisingly—most of that can’t is coming from people who simply and truly don’t know HOW.
No one likes to look stupid or ill-informed.  It’s all too human for us to blurt out, “Oh!  I can’t do that!”  or  “No way, that can’t work!”  when what’s really true is—I haven’t got an snowball’s idea in heck how to do that, or how to do it with that method—I wouldn’t even know where to start.  I always did it like THIS and if THIS doesn’t work, it’s all I know so I can’t.
And therein rests the problem, of course.  Can’t is a slamming door, the end of a road before the journey has even started.  Can’t = No.  No action, no trying, no effort, no change.  No learning.
Instead of saying Can’t in all its flavors, I’d like to suggest that we rephrase it.  Try saying instead, “I’d like my dog (myself, my world) to do X and I don’t know how to get there.”
Saying I don’t know HOW is two things: 
1)  An honest acknowledgement of where we are right now:  whatever we are doing isn’t working and we feel stuck. 
2)  An opportunity to ask powerful questions.  Questions like:
            If I don’t know how, what do I need to learn?
            Is there another way this can be done?
            Does someone else know how?
            Who can teach me?
I see many wonderful dog owners who get themselves stuck.  They want the dog to learn to do X, or to learn to stop doing Y.  They try a few things—the things they did with their last dogs, the things they already know.   But their current dog isn’t like their last dogs, and somehow, for some reason, the good old ways aren’t working.
The old adage where there’s a will, there’s a way is a good one.  If we surrender to Can’t, we won’t act.  We won’t keep trying, seek new information or consider other possibilities. 
If, on the other hand, we consider Maybe I don’t know HOW?  we have a wealth of possible actions spread before us.  Getting more information, trying something new, exploring who does know and what they know and how we can use it in our own training… loads of things to do that get us out of stuck and back on the road to successful training. 
Have a beautiful day with your dog. 

Categories: Behavior, training, getting help

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