Amber was right!
The last time I visited Italy was summer 2020 between lockdowns. It was a bittersweet reunion with my second home because the reason I hadn’t visited again before last week was because I didn’t want to leave Lao as his health declined.
We went to all his old favourite haunts and I felt intense sadness, but it was good to relive the happy memories too – and some I’d completely forgotten and Ruben reminded me of, like when Lao jumped into the river to chase the ducks and of course he didn’t recall so I just stood there helplessly as the ducks kept giving him the run around and he’d swim off after them in another direction and this continued until we got told off by the groundsman and Ruben had to wade in after him. Oh Lao.
I’m pleased I made the decision to stay in the UK with him. Though of course I missed my Italian family. And it turned out 18 months is a long time not to practice a fairly newly acquired skill.
My Italian was rusty. Old-abandoned-shopping-trolley-in-a-canal-rusty. It was so incredibly frustrating. I knew what I wanted to say but the words just weren’t there.
It was worse than the Labradonut fiasco of 2020.*
Conversation was painful and awkward – for everyone.
You know the saying, practice makes perfect. If you’ve been in the Club a while you’ll be familiar with the Amberism** Practice Makes Permanent.
When we learn something new, new pathways in the brain are ignited. The more we practice, the stronger the pathways become and the better we get at the skill/action/response.
If you stop sending electricity down the pathways, the connection gets weaker. The less you practice, the weaker the connections become. But the connections are never lost – they’re permanent. They just become weaker if they’re not used.
This is why we avoid allowing our dogs to practice the unwanted behaviour (pulling, barking, lunging, etc) – because the more they practice, the stronger the neural connections become and the easier they default to that behaviour in the future.
In my brain, the pathways that enable me to speak Italian are fairly new. I hadn’t practiced Italian for a while and so the connections in my brain weren’t strong enough for me to recall the language.
I even spoke French at one point. Mamma Mia!
French was the first second language (that doesn’t sound right!) I learned and so it appears to be my default. And certainly when I was first learning Italian and I was grappling around in the dark recesses of my brain for the right vocabulary, it would often be French that would tumble out of my mouth.
Which leads me to another Amberism…
What we learn FIRST we learn BEST.
What does this mean for our dogs? If they practiced the unwanted behaviour a lot in early life, it will be stronger.
None of this sounds particularly optimistic, does it? But it can be! There is hope.
And here I’ll share the final Amberism.
Don’t practice what you DON’T want, and instead practice what you DO want.
Manage the environment so your dog doesn’t practice pulling, barking and lunging and instead practice the behaviours you do want – those that generate calm confidence and focus.
I’ve hired an Italian tutor and set myself the goal of being back to my previous level of Italian by June. I know I can do that because the pathways in my brain are weak – but they’re not lost.
In the meantime I’ll practice Italian a lot and cut out the baguettes and croissants!
To learn more about the Practice Makes Permanent concept and what it means for your reactive or distracted dog, check out Pocket Coaching Episode 3 or this webinar.
**Amberism – a motto often reiterated by Veterinary Behaviourist Dr Amber Batson