Practice? Liszt or Chopsticks

Years ago in another life I was a music teacher. In addition to class music lessons for many years I taught the piano and the flute.

What’s this got do do with dogs, you might ask.

from Wikimedia Commons

My pupils’ results showed I was quite a good music teacher. Being a piano teacher in the exam system was actually more about motivating my pupils to practise than anything else.

I could have been a rubbish piano player myself and created great little performers. I could on the other hand have been a concert pianist unable to teach others to play the piano.

I found that talented but lazy pupils would making less progress than hard-working less talented pupils – with the annoying exception of one or two kids who seemed to excel with no evidence of any practice at all.

My lessons, in a nutshell, consisted of going over what the pupils had practised during the previous week and setting the following week’s practice, with something that they found fun in between.

It’s very easy to get cross with a child who, week after week, is sent home with the same piano practice in his or her little practice notebook. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat the same thing over and over, week after week.

Frustrating for me, frustrating for the child and frustrating for the parents when they read the report.

I soon realised that for my own sanity during the couple of years when I taught piano lessons back to back in a boy’s school, that if I were to avoid some sort of breakdown I would need to find a way of getting them to enjoy practice. This in turn would give both the boys and myself enjoyable lessons.

I devised all sorts of little goals for them. I broke things down into tiny increments. I used reward systems based on what would motivate that particular child – some being a lot more competitive than others.

Some children of course shouldn’t have been learning the piano at all – they did it because for some reason their parents wanted them to.

With these kids I would concentrate on making the lesson an enjoyable experience, making practice optional, and hope the parents didn’t complain when their now motivated child drove them mad by hammering out Chopsticks over and over on his piano at home.

There is such a big parallel with my days as a music teacher and my rebirth into dog training and behaviour work.

We can be brilliant dog trainers and behaviourists can’t we, but unless we can motivate the human clients to practice we are doing worse than wasting our time – we are turning them off the whole process.

With learning a musical instrument we are teaching humans to do a lot of repetitions in order to perfect a skill for themselves. With dog work we have an added complication – we are trying to motivate the humans themselves to do things ‘over and over’ whilst at the same time motivating their dogs to do things ‘over and over’ and for everyone to enjoy the process.

We motivate the owner who in turn must motivate the dog.

One other thing my days as a music teacher taught me is the importance of a realistic goal. Not every Tommy or Tanya has it in them to make a Ji Liu but will feel thrilled to master the easy version of Fur Elise (for some reason everyone wants to play Fur Elise).

I strive to get dog owners to rejoice in the smallest of achievements. I strive to get them to see the necessity of multiple repetitions of certain things whilst also finding ways to get them to enjoy the process in a way that is appropriate and relevant to that particular person. I don’t say that I’m always successful and it’s an ongoing learning process.

downloadOwners then need to do the same for their dogs. The dogs need motivation to enjoy constant repetition and with most this involves some skill in the delivery of food.

It probably takes the average pupil several years to pay a listenable Fur Elise (and the many steps towards that should also be great milestones).  With dogs, achieving changes in either behaviour modification or trick training isn’t a quick business that happens by itself. It only happens with time, effort – and practice.

Just like those kids who should not be learning piano at all and only do so because their parents so desire, there are owners who are determined to take their dogs to classes to which their dog just isn’t suited.

With certain dogs we just go for the ‘Chopsticks’ option. Find a realistic level and rejoice that you have discovered something the dog loves and can excel at.

(While I have got my teacher’s hat back on, I am having an argument with spellcheck. In English (UK English) the verb is spelt ‘to practise’ and the noun is ‘practice’ !).

My main website:


About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. A 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site:
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3 Responses to Practice? Liszt or Chopsticks

  1. Pingback: Practice or Chopsticks | Paws for Thought

  2. Lyn says:

    Another great blog, Theo, thanks 🙂
    It’s giving me some thoughts about our current training course and getting people to practise.


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