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For Puppies and People, It's All About Consistency

by on June 27, 2016 6:00 AM

My daughter got a new puppy in December, after the unexpected and devastating loss of her two year old mini dachshund.  If you have welcomed a puppy into your home, you know that the weeks and months of housetraining can be a challenge.  There is biting and peeing and barking and pooping and more and more of the same.  With rotating work schedules in their apartment and most likely some babying the new puppy because of sadness about the old one, potty training has not been going well.  

When I visited over spring break, it was clear that the puppy was in charge and she had little interest in doing her business outside -- especially when a puppy pad (or the carpet) was right there. Biting and leaping off the furniture was the norm. The girls were getting frustrated.  We even called in my cousin Joe who trains dogs for some kind of bomb sniffing.  His advice was great but, without follow through, didn’t do much good.  

We decided the puppy needed a stint at boot camp. For the last 12 days, she’s been at my house.

It’s all about consistency.  

While it hasn’t been perfect, it has been incredible to watch. A consistent schedule. Consistent messages about what is okay (peeing outside) and what is not okay (jumping and biting). A little dog watching our big dogs respond to our commands and to praise and/or redirection. Not so suddenly, she has it down pretty well. In this short amount of time, she has even learned the sound of the lid coming off the dog cookie jar and runs over to wait her turn when they come back in from doing their business

Later this month when we take her back to South Carolina, Rory the mini-dachshund will hopefully be a much better pet.  

The lessons of consistency in how we conduct ourselves and how we interact with others are applicable in many situations beyond the challenges of puppy training.

When people or objects or situations are inconsistent, we learn to doubt. We learn to not trust. We question the inconsistency and we question ourselves.

I had a boss very early in my career who we used to call “Lisa, Bright and Dark” after the 1970s made-for-TV movie about a young woman with mental illness. The movie was actually a fairly accurate depiction of bipolar illness and was surprisingly ahead of its time for using television to educate about a social problem. Although not officially diagnosed as bipolar, my boss at the time was so moody and inconsistent that we never knew who we were going to face when we came into work.  She could be happy and supportive or grumpy and critical, depending on the day (or even the hour sometimes).   Eventually, each new person who came in would learn to shrug his or her shoulders and try to do what we thought we were supposed to do. The turnover in that department was, not surprisingly, high.  

Unpredictability and inconsistency can be very frustrating.

We trust and follow those people who are consistent in their interactions with us. We can’t and don’t count on those who are inconsistent when their reactions or responses differ from interaction to interaction. From bosses to politicians to just about everyone with whom we interact, we react when the stimulus and the response are inconsistent or unpredictable.

For children and puppies, inconsistency can be confusing.

Consistency in reactions and responses allows people to predict behaviors and to learn to count on us. It helps us make decisions.

When I do my lecture on managing behaviors of people in the leadership class that I teach, I talk about consistency. Following through on what you will say and do. Following through on rules or guidelines for what is not okay. Treating each of your “followers” in the same manner.  Applying policies and procedures consistently for all. Being consistent in your approach.

In that discussion, I ask the students in class how many of them knew their parents wouldn’t follow through on rules or infractions of rules like curfew or arguing with siblings. It’s incredible to me how many students raise their hands or say things like “I knew when my mom was serious or that my dad meant it this time but most of the time they didn’t do what they said they were going to do.”  

Inconsistency sends messages that are difficult to translate.

Consider the current presidential race. Both of our presumptive candidates have been extremely inconsistent in their messages, their opinions, their plans for our collective future and, whatever happens to be their “truth” of the moment.  It makes us wonder who and what they will be upon the next interview or debate. Their unpredictability creates doubt and question about their leadership style.   I believe Bernie Sanders’ success has been somewhat related to his consistent message and consistent presentation, regardless of the audience. I wouldn’t vote for him but give him an A on consistency.

And parenting?  It’s all about consistency. Parents who lament that their child doesn’t “listen” is often mirroring the inconsistent message from Mom and Dad.  

My husband smiles when I say that the little dog is almost ready to go back home. She is on a schedule and is responding to consistent stimuli, directions, reactions and re-directions. He has asked me “Have you trained her or has she trained you?” Either way, she’s ready to graduate from boot camp. The message has been consistent.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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