Practice, Practice, and Benefit


I used to live next door to a woman who played the Bassoon. She was in the local community orchestra, in quartets and quintets in the community. She had been playing the instrument for many years, now semi-retired and getting much satisfaction from her involvement with the local groups.

It was very common for me to hear her practicing, doing scales, playing bits of movements from the next Sibelius Concerto or whatever that they were going to be performing. This is a person who played for years, is quite accomplished, yet she continues to go back to basics, refresh and remind the fingers, the mouth, the mind, of the early things learned. (Of course, as a double reed instrument, one does need to maintain practice just to be successful at making it sing.)

When you or I took guitar or violin or piano lessons as children, we were reminded that we needed to practice each day between lessons in order to retain competence. Those of us that didn’t embrace this advice tended to give up the lessons for other pursuits. The flute or clarinet was returned to the rental store, the guitar went back to the closet to gather dust.

But again and again I hear from people who took their dog to a puppy class or to a beginning obedience class and then expected the dog to know how to behave from then on. When I explain that reminders and practice and new skills are good for all dogs, I often hear resistance. Shouldn’t that one 6-, 8-, or 10-week class have taken care of the rest of the dog’s life? Shouldn’t he then know to come when called, keep off the furniture, refrain from jumping on people, stay when asked?

We lead busy lives. It takes time and effort to communicate formally or even with concentrated focus with our dogs. It also brings huge rewards that make every minute of doing so worth the time. It builds our relationship, it allows for more freedom to the dog to join us in more activities, it becomes something that our dog very much looks forward to each day, the joy of interacting with us, and using his brain. In my book, it’s all upside — the only downside being carving the time out of our day. It allows us to learn and understand more and more about our dog.

It doesn’t need to be much time. Even a couple of 10-minute or a few 5-minute focused attention slots in our day will be a huge advantage to both dog and person. When we put the guitar away in the closet or close up the piano, there is not much cost. But if we do this with our dog, there is a big cost. They pick up habits that displease us, they lose beneficial privileges because of unruly behavior or a lack of self-control. We may even begin to resent them a bit. Some investment in teaching them, communicating with them would bring the exact opposite result. We grow to love them and appreciate them so much more when we actually put time and focus on tutoring them in desirable behavior, teaching them fun tricks, or finding that they have amazing aptitude, well beyond what we could have imagined.

And yes, we need to continue to practice our scales throughout their lives. They may become very proficient at many things, but refreshing and renewing the basics will always come in handy. The more we engage with our dogs, become active participants in their lives and in communicating with them, the more we appreciate them and they us. We can’t just take them through one beginner-level class and call them done. And the more we ask of each other, the more amazing our partnership becomes.

They can’t be put in the closet. And we don’t want to give up on what could be a profound and wonderful relationship, just because we neglected feeding it or nurturing it. If we start out right, prevent the things that aren’t so cute when they are adults or not so newly adopted, but more established in our homes, watch their joy as they learn new things, it can only result in a beautiful thing. The investment pays off exponentially. And they don’t have much risk of being surrendered to a shelter or rescue, their lives upended.


Tricia Breen has been involved with horses and dogs for most of her life. She studied biology and animal behavior in college, and spent years training her dogs and helping others to teach their dogs while moving around the country. Once settled back in her native California, she participated in and taught classes at her local dog training club, then taught classes and conducted behavior consults at the Marin Humane Society. For the last five years, Tricia was the Director of Animal Care and Adoptions at Marin Humane Society, always keeping an eye toward helping dogs and volunteers with shelter life. She has recently left this role and gone back to assisting people with their dogs to build relationships, consulting with behavior and training issues. She can be reached via as a new partner in this endeavor.