“Now, behave yourself!!!” came the final command from the adult as the young person walked towards me.

Another session with another youngster whose behaviour usually was “challenging”, to say the least.
“Behave yourself”
Why do we say such things to kids? Maybe to make ourselves feel more in control of a situation? “Behave yourself” is often just said as a throw away remark rather than with any real expectation of compliance.

“Behave yourself!” They are such imprecise words.

Generalisations help nobody. We need precision of  language and thought, if we are to teach well and help others to learn easily.

If such a command was heard with a thinking mind, the following questions might be asked:

With regard to what  specifically?
In exactly what way am I to behave?

I have found that the need to be precise is a hugely important element of teaching. We need to spend time in thinking and then in selecting Just One Thing that we will work on with our charge.

And it doesn’t matter if I am working with children or with dogs. The rule stands for both.


We need to select just one thing and then we need to show whoever we are teaching how that One Thing is to be achieved. The one thing chosen must be clear, precise, and achievable.

The imprecision of a “Behave yourself” approach allows the teacher to comment on everything, criticise everything, correct everything, try to control everything. Instead of confining attention to just one thing.  It also implies that the young person will know how to “behave” in every area. Some do not.

When working with dogs too we  need to select Just One Thing to concentrate on at a time. It is easier for the dog that way.

In the case of an untrained dog perhaps that One Thing might be the most immediately annoying behaviour…like not jumping up on people to greet them. So we might overlook everything else for now  and just concentrate on the “Four feet stay on the ground” one thing.
In the case of an unruly teenager I usually, at first, select something physical to work on. I overlook all the other (often equally annoying) behaviours and pick out Just One Thing.

It might be, for instance,  keeping personal possessions like bags neatly stowed under chairs rather than trip hazard death traps.Something that is easy for a person to notice and which is within his power to ameliorate. Something that we can all see and that we can be objective about…the bag is either under the chair or it isn’t. The coat is either hung up or it is not. (The dog’s feet are either on the ground or they aren’t.)

This is easy stuff. It allows for objectivity. There is little room for argument. Just one thing. And then,  later, another thing.  One step at a time.

When training in any area moves on into more elite levels it should still follow the same rule.
Pick just one thing out and work on it. The more skilled in any area we become then the more precise we need to be in selecting what One Thing we work on.

Golfers spend hours working on things like the one exact, precise angle they want to find with a specific club for a particular type of situation. Footballers practice sending the ball not just to any old place but to very deliberately chosen marks. When musicians play at a decent level they often practice a piece of music, over and over again, until their fingers can play those notes almost by themselves.

In training our dogs we should do the same. We should think  about what we are doing in training and then isolate something very precise and work on that with care and great attention to its detail.
Take training The Retrieve, for instance. The overall behaviour is roughly that our dog will run forward and pick up an article and return to us and deliver it into our hands. That’s simple.

That’s a minefield!

There are so many elements of so many behaviours contained in that exercise that we could be analysing and isolating them for days.
Not so long ago an accepted method of training The Retrieve was to get a wooden dumb bell and clamp your dog’s jaws shut over it. And then Hooooollllllllddddddd them shut.
Been there, done that.
Thankfully, most of us have moved away from such a Neanderthal approach to dog training but we may still need to reflect on  what we have replaced those methods with.

Are we always really conscious of the need for precision in our aims? Do we break behaviours down sufficiently into their most minute parts? Are we alert to reward the tiniest things the dog does?

Are we reflecting enough  in order to identify, isolate, and work on Just One Thing?

Or do we skip all the little bits, the tiny steps, and just toss the dumb bell out there and hope for the best?

“Hold It!” We command.

We throw out the words like a final exhortation to the Gods. A mixture of hope and desperation.

“Hold it! Hold it!!!”

The “Command” is a wish rather than the cue for a behaviour that we have carefully taught, one step at a time…

rather like…

“Behave yourself!”

About consistentclarity

I have been involved in education all my working life. I am trained as a teacher and have taught both children and adults. I am fascinated by how people and animals learn and all that they have in common. Music and literature have been central in my life.
This entry was posted in Children and Dogs, Dog Training, Successful teaching, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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