The Mental Game of Dog Training – guest post by Cian Liddy

One of the really unexpected joys that has come from The Mental Game of Poker has been the ways in which people have used the lessons in other aspects of their life away from the tables. As a dog owner, I was particularly interested to here how Cian Liddy used the teachings of the book to understand his own dog’s behaviour better. I must admit without realising it, I also used the Adut Learning Model as a framework for training my dog. So it’s my pleasure to turn the reigns over to Cian (Who you may know as Sheeprustler in poker circles) and let him explain further

unnamedI have a couple of Border Collies that I regrettably do not give enough time to training. I have taught them the basics: sit, stay, fetch, roll-over and heel; but their potential to learn is under-nourished in my care. However, through basic training and time spent with them I have been struck by how similar training a dog is to learning a new skill or embedding new knowledge. Observing the process of a dog learning a new command is very similar to the human process of learning a new skill or understanding a difficult concept. Understanding where you or your dog are in the learning process is crucial for both of you to develop optimally. The core theory I relate both learning processes to is the Adult Learning Model (ALM) as discussed in Jared and Barry’s “Mental Game of Poker”.

At first glance the comparison of canine learning to the ALM may seem stupid. How can a dog be consciously incompetent or otherwise? It is unaware its own abilities. The truth is we as humans are often unaware of where we are in the learning process even when we are aware of what the ALM is. The ALM defines stages of a mental and physical process through the lens of how we are consciously or unconsciously aware or unaware of that process. The truth is that even if we are unaware of what the process is the same mental and physical learning patterns take place. All of us learned how to drive a car following the ALM model even though most of us were unaware of the process.

Being aware of the learning patterns described by that theory should give us a much better understanding of ourselves and how best to manage each step. It doesn’t always work that way however. Some of us, myself included, can criticise ourselves heavily for not performing a task correctly when what is required is an awareness that we have not yet fully mastered that task; we need to nurture the skill and move it to the next stage of the ALM. Our dogs often bear the brunt of our anger when they don’t do what we want. The truth is we have probably neglected training our dog to perform the task to the canine level of unconscious competence.
In the early stages of training the dog is hyper-active, lacks concentration, doesn’t know what direction you wish to take it in and doesn’t know what to do next. This is comparable for me to the conscious incompetence stage. When beginning to learn a new and difficult concept in poker I sometimes have a habit of becoming hyper and procrastinating. I flick to social media, search for meaningless news, anything but tackle the concept. I lack concentration, don’t know what direction to go in and I don’t know what to do next. My brain feels like the hyper dog who is confused about what his master wants him to do.

I think this is a feeling a lot of people can relate to. The brain can initially have trouble focusing on a zone where it hasn’t spent a lot of time focusing before. At this early stage of the learning process both the dog and your brain need to be treated with absolute patience and persistence. Your body is sometimes going to fight to get you away from the task you need to complete and the dog is going to fight to get away from training. Think about a time where you found a big leak in your game. Maybe you noticed someone doing something differently in a video or you found a spot where you regularly burn equity in a hand history review. The discovery made you realise there is an area of your game that needs a lot of attention; you become consciously incompetent. This discovery initially slows your game down both in play and in study. Hands that we previously thought we played well suddenly become more uncertain. In review hands that previously took five or ten minutes to analyse now take upwards of half an hour. If we have been comfortable in our game, generally playing and reviewing hands quite cleanly, this process can be a real slap to the ego. For me personally, the volume of hands I can normally play and study is down. Even though it’s not, the lower volume of hands played and studied begins to feel like a lower quality of poker. The resulting build-up of frustration adds to the challenge of learning new concepts and can become more fuel for procrastination.

The comparison with the dog’s hyperactivity in the early stages of learning is almost totally metaphoric but I think the next stages of learning are more technically similar. When learning a new command the dog goes through a stage similar to conscious competence. As you train the dog more and more you will see them move from obliviousness of your message to a slow comprehension. If you are training your dog to “sit” will see that the word start to mean something on some level but it will take a few seconds of computing or uncertainty for the dog to perform the task. Like the dog the more we encounter the same concept the easier it becomes to understand. As the concept moves from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence we can think and act quicker. Our brains are bogged down by less uncertainty and fired by more knowledge. We still need to actively think through the concept to utilise it but our thought process is much clearer.

“Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.” – Stephen King

Your brain and your dog love good daily structure. An organised schedule is one of the best tools available to you for improved learning and focus. The more structure you offer your brain and your dog the more receptive the two will be to your direction. Good routine is also crucially important for moving skills from conscious competence to unconscious competence.

A mistake I have frequently made in learning or training skills is to get complacent at the conscious competence stage. I don’t push on by utilising regular structured practise and the skill becomes stuck in a semi-competent limbo. Sometimes it is easy to think that a skill has been mastered to unconscious competence when really it has not. Complacency may lead us to put practice aside and when we come back to that skill we find we have lost a lot major percentage of the gains we made. The same happens when I stop training my dogs without ensuring that the point has been driven home. The next time I want them to perform that task their understanding of the concept is closer to the metaphoric canine unconscious incompetence stage. A regular structured routine ensures that you are practising skills consistently, moving them efficiently through the ALM. For the dog it means they encounter the new command more and more. The dog obeys the command quicker and quicker until eventually it is an automatic process.

The core reason I have compared canine and human learning in this blog is because I’ve noticed a trend where people fail to realise where they or their dogs are in the learning process. This failure in recognition usually leads people to the same conclusion, that anger will remedy the problem. I think anger as it’s used for self-correction can definitely have its benefits. It most likely comes from a desire to be better and if it is channelled into a process it can be used as fuel to improve. It can sometimes snap us out of an unfocused state and make us more aware. In my personal experience I see it channelled more incorrectly than correctly, however.

The problem with anger is that often we are holding ourselves or our dog to a standard we have not yet reached. Instead of anger having the intended effect of spurring us on, it becomes a roadblock to our development covering up areas of weakness. The most common thing I hear people say is “I should know” or “I should be better” and they get mad at themselves. Instead of viewing the mistake as an opportunity to improve they consider themselves weak or stupid and just carry on being angry without any new direction.

People often get genuinely exasperated when their dogs don’t listen even though most often it is because the dog is not fully trained. Those times where your dog won’t listen is data presenting itself, showing an area that can be improved upon. The same applies when we make mistakes in poker. There is data behind the error and if we incorrectly get angry at ourselves for doing the wrong thing we forfeit the opportunity to analyse that data and get better.

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