Don’t Think, Just Do
Last week I met up with a friend to go on an adventure and then out to lunch. With road conditions potentially changing, we opted to ride in her 4-wheel drive SUV instead of my little car. I don’t remember the last time I was in a car and wasn’t driving. When I got in the car, I reached over my left shoulder to get the seatbelt…. and then reached over again…and then finally realized that it was on the other side. Although I knew that I wasn’t driving, my body automatically–without thinking–did the motion that it does multiple times everyday. Much of what we do everyday is fueled by muscle memory–we don’t think, just do. Take a moment and type a comment on this blog post (no really, go do it)… as you type did you have to think about where the individuals letters live on the keyboard (or the individual letters that make up each word for that matter–though this is a different phenomenon?) or did the words just flow right from your head down through your fingers? That is thanks to muscle memory–through repetition, your muscles have created shortcuts in your brain, so to speak, that allow you to act and do things on an a subconscious level.
When dogs (or people) are learning new physical skills, their bodies are a little stiff, their movements slow or rigid, and their brains are working very hard focusing on the task. Learners aren’t quite sure how to move their bodies in a way to achieve the desired result or position so it takes an incredible amount of brain power to figure out what works (imagine trying to learn a cartwheel–it probably would not look all that great to start and you’d really have to focus). Through repetition of the behavior, they train their muscles how to perform the skill, so each time it becomes smoother, faster, and less rigid or awkward. Think about babies as they learn to walk. At first they rigid, slow, and fall frequently but as they learn how to correct their balance, learn how to move their muscles to accomplish their goals, and build muscle, they become speedy little buggers pretty quickly.
So what does this have to do with training? Muscle memory is a huge part of the training process because as the dogs practice, they are training their bodies how to move to complete a a behavior (how do they need to move their bodies to get into a “sit” position from a “stand” or from a “down” etc). The more they practice, the better their muscles know how to move into position and as a result, the action will become smoother, faster, and require less active concentration–the ability to perform a behavior quickly without much thought is a part of the proofing process. Being able to tap into the power of muscle memory can take your dog’s training to the next level because it can improve the speed and accuracy of their skills.
I had been working on Rio’s “stand” behavior for a bit and while he had a reliable stand, I really wanted to end up with a kick-back stand. I toyed around with luring the kickback stand but really didn’t like where it was going, so I put it on hold for a while. During a random training session, I thought I’d see if he could do a down to a bow position just for kicks and giggles. He struggled with this, but with a little bit of luring help, he figured out the motion to kick his back legs out behind him. He was having a blast with this down-to-bow sequence that I thought I’d try a sit-to-bow sequence. Sure enough, he kicked his back legs out and dropped his front into a bow. Then my lightbulb went off, “I wonder if this would work for sit-to-stand.” I let him simmer on his newly acquired sit-to-bow skill for a day or two (still practicing it to continue to build muscle memory of that kick-back motion) and then I cued a sit-to-stand during a session and he kicked his legs back into a half-bow and then stood up! SWEET! We repeated this over and over again and the speed and fluidity of his motion increased and the accuracy of going into a stand and not a bow improved with each trial until he was smoothly, quickly, and reliably moving from a sit to a stand with a kick-back motion. His brain had to learn how to move his body to achieve the kick-back motion and all the repetition was creating muscle memory on how to perform this behavior.
Once the dog knows how to easily and smoothly perform the skill, we can put that skill on cue. When the behavior is being practiced and repeated on cue, we can get to the point that the dog isn’t using any higher level thought/memory to respond to the cue. They have created a bit of a shortcut between the cue and the action–they don’t have to think, they just respond. Their body reacts with out them really having to think about it because the action they are going to perform is so well known by the dog. Think of a starter’s pistol/beep (which does have a contextual basis to it in terms of the muscle memory)–the swimmers/runners have, over time, trained their bodies to respond to the pistol by taking off or diving in. They don’t have to think about it, “heard that noise, now I need to dive in,” their bodies simply respond to the noise. I swam competitively for years and years and from my own personal experiences, my muscles flinched and I hit the water well before I actively thought about the start of the race.
Let’s pause and look at this quick recall video with Rio, even in the slow-mo replay, his response time to the whistle is amazingly fast–there was no pause to think, he heard the cue and his body responded extremely quickly.
He doesn’t have to think to respond–he has dropped that left shoulder to turn on a dime so many times that it is a well trained maneuver for his body to do as a response to the two-bleet whistle. The muscle memory makes his recall that much faster and, I think, that much more reliable because it doesn’t require active thought–he just does. He doesn’t get hung up on worrying about what he’s chasing, he hears the two-bleet whistle and his body responds to it without having to think about it.
Repetition and perfect practice build up your dog’s muscle memory. This is one reason that recalls are one of the things I practice most with my dogs (in a variety of ways with lots of games to keep it very fun and reinforcing). It’s also one of the reasons I practice tons of position changes (sit–>down, down–>spin, down–>bow, bow–>sit, etc). The more the dogs are familiar with how to move their bodies from one position to another, the better they understand the positions themselves and the faster they are able to reliably perform them–which can, in some cases, be life saving.