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— October 21, 2014 —

What does an Etch-A-Sketch have to do with dog training?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

The other day, I was having a conversation with Jon, our AM manager. I think I was bathing a puppy that had, as puppies tend to do, found something stinky to roll in. I don’t remember the exact conversation that that led up to it, but he said, “I thought they (dogs) had an Etch-A-Sketch’ brain.”

I had an Etch-A-Sketch as a kid. I think just about everyone my age had one. They were a toy that allowed you to draw a design on a screen by etching a pattern. You turn these little knobs at the base and a pointer moves beneath the screen to draw the pattern. As soon as you shake it, though, the pattern you drew disappears. All the information on the screen was lost.

Although I never experienced it, I would imagine that if you kept moving the pointer back and forth on the same spot for long enough, you could make a permanent scratch on the screen. That scratch wouldn’t go away when you shook it. With consistency and repetition, the scratch would become permanent.

It immediately struck me as an ideal way to describe training your dog. Their brain is sort of an Etch-A-Sketch. You make an impression and as soon as something else happens, it’s like the Etch-A-Sketch gets all shaken up. It washes away what you just did. However, if you keep doing the same thing, if you’re consistent and repetitive, your work will become permanent. Your dog will eventually retain the information you gave it, but only if you’re consistent through all the situations and distractions that happen. Those distractions are like someone shook your Etch-A-Sketch. If that happens, you have to go back to drawing your picture for the dog until it becomes permanent.

Now, Etch-A-Sketch screens were pretty consistent and all made of the same stuff. Dogs, not so much. How long it will take for your dog to permanently retain the info you give him will depend on his temperament, intelligence level and desire (drive) to work at whatever job you give him. Teaching a Golden Retriever to retrieve will become “etched” much faster that trying to do the same training with a Husky. However, teaching a Husky to pull a sled through the snow will probably happen pretty quickly. The reason is that these behaviors are sort of pre-etched in the dogs through selective breeding for hundreds of generations. All we have to do is uncover them.

So, the next time you get frustrated because you know you taught your dog something, but they are not doing it, take a minute to think about the Etch-A-Sketch. Maybe someone just shook yours.


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