Here’s a little mentally challenging exercise for you to try. On a piece of paper, describe how to open a pop bottle with a can opener in three minutes. You write while I hum the Jeopardy theme. Ready? Set. Go!
I remember this exercise with clarity, writing fast and furiously in one of my college classes while other students put their pens down in a matter of seconds. My frustration by the sheer lack of time for the enormity of the task grew as I realized that all my neighbors were finished. I had hardly started when the professor requested us to cease writing.
There are many, many steps to this exercise, so hopefully you did not just write, “hold pop bottle, grasp can opener, place can opener on rim of bottle cap, lift can opener up until cap pops off, and put can opener down.” However, that is what roughly two thirds of the students in the lecture hall sized class wrote, much to the professor’s chagrin.
Very few of us in the class put our first steps as “recognize” the pop bottle, “recognize” the can opener, and “recognize” the bottle cap, elements crucial to the success of this exercise.
The process of taking an exercise or problem and breaking it down into manageable steps for instruction is called task analysis. Task analysis is the art form behind all good sets of methodical instruction, whether verbal or written. To illustrate the importance of this skill, think back to any manuals or assembly instructions that you have had to follow that were poorly written. Computer manuals come to mind here! We have all had to endure them at some time in our lives. Endure is the operative word since poorly given instructions create frustration and confusion in the learning of any task.
The ability to task analyze can be a natural, innate talent. We have all encountered that magical person who can walk into any given situation and immediately knows what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. That person is an automatic task analyzer; one who doesn’t have to work at thinking in a methodical, sequenced manner. For those of us who do not possess such an inborn skill, task analysis can be learned by doing exercises such as the pop bottle exercise.
What does all of this have to do with dog training, you ask?
Training people to train dogs is merely task analysis in action. The ability to analyze what is occurring in a dog-owner training relationship and applying the necessary, sequenced steps to correct or assist the training relationship is what delineates a good instructor from an average instructor. A good instructor must be able to deliver a set of sequenced instructions to the students in the class. A good instructor must also first recognize any problems in a dog-owner relationship, most of which are blatant (or dog owners would not seek our help), some of which are subtle, and some which are complex. Task analysis is the foundation skill necessary to determine a course of action to take when training dogs and owners. Recognition is always the first step in that process.
Since most of us are not natural task analyzers, the process will have to be learned and practiced. Practicing the methodical thinking necessary in task analysis by mentally breaking down simple tasks for fun sharpens any instructor’s analytical skills. Gleaning experience in the training arena will also help in improving your task analyzing skills.
There are steps and guidelines to follow in the task analysis process which will help improve your ability to think methodically and in a sequenced fashion. As I have stated, recognition of the problem is the first step in any task analysis. Once a problem has been diagnosed, the next step would be to determine an end goal, outcome, or solution to the problem, which is the easiest step in analyzing a task. Very often the student or client determines this step for us… ”I just want my dog to…”
After a problem and a solution have been determined, it is now time to write down three main goals for achieving the solution. Think broadly here and avoid getting specific. Once you have diagnosed these three broad goals, it is important to put them in chronological order. Broad goals are written such that they start with a noun, which is followed by the word “will”, and then a verbal phrase, i.e. the dog will sit on command or the client will use an appropriate voice, etc.
In task analysis, the hard part comes next. Take each broad goal and begin breaking it down into sequenced, detailed steps called sub-goals. Sub-goals are very specific and commonly contain directional words, descriptive words, and measurements; and will clearly delineate time elements and percentages of performance expectations. The number of steps you create is usually commensurate with the difficulty of the task. For practicing, the more sub-goals you develop, the better. These specific steps become your working plan. They can be changed, altered, or adapted as they are put into action. Mastery of the sub-goals will lead to attainment of the broad goals.
To help you understand the task analysis process, I have written out a simple plan as an example:
Problem—The dog will not come.
Solution—The dog will come when called, indoors 100% of the time at a distance of seven feet.
(1) The dog will recognize his name (assume nothing)!
(2) The dog will recognize the command “Come.”
(3) The dog will associate “Come” with the action.
Sub-goals of broad goal 1:
a) Call dog’s name
b) Check for response; eye contact, head tilt, ear movement, movement toward the caller
c) No response; make noise to elicit one
d) Upon response, treat or praise dog
e) Repeat steps until dog response to its name 100% of the time
Sub-goals of broad goal 2:
a) Owner fills pockets with treats
b) Owner will squat down no more than 3 ft from the dog
c) Owner will call dog’s name
d) Owner will call out a high, happy, one-word “Come” command
e) Owner will hold out treat toward dog
f) Owner will repeat command and continue to lure dog towards him
g) When dog gets to owner, owner will stand and give treat to dog
h) Owner moves away from dog 3 ft
i) Owner repeats the exercise 2 more times successfully
j) Exercise finishes
k) Repeat whenever possible during the day; at least 3 times
l) Continue daily lessons until dog responds to the command 100% of time
Sub-goals of broad goal 3:
a) Owner will call dog’s name
b) Owner will add high, happy, “Come” command
c) Dog will be rewarded
d) Dog will initiate walking towards owner 100% of the time at 3 ft
e) Owner will increase distance to 5 ft
f) Dog will respond to command 100% of the time at 5 ft
g) Owner will increase distance to 7 ft
h) Dog will respond to command 100% of the time at 7 ft
i) Owner will begin to treat 50% of the time; verbally praise 100% of the time
I hope that the innate task analyzers reading this are having fun adding their own steps to the ones I have missed! I also hope that the novice instructor becomes intrigued with this process rather than overwhelmed.
So, now that you have had a mini-course in the process of task analysis, please fetch another piece of paper and spend the next three minutes describing how to open a pop bottle with a can opener. You write. I’ll hum. Ready? Set. Go!