Insights from teaching a dog to sit
As congregational leaders, we have a lot to learn from animal trainers. Animal trainers have a saying: “It’s never the animal’s fault” understanding that you can’t blame an animal for something the trainer has failed to do.
Similarly, if people are not making the changes we hoped for, the first step might be is to look in the mirror and ask what we might have done to contribute to the resulting behavior. Was the approach wrong? Was the setting inappropriate? Were our intentions unclear? Was our feedback counterproductive? Listed below is a summary of five dog training rules I often apply to congregational settings.
- Set clear goals and action steps. Good trainers know the outcomes they’re seeking and can name the specific behaviors they’re hope to replicate in others. At training events, we encourage people to have caring conversations at meal time, before bedtime and while in the car. Some congregations encourage members to pray daily, worship weekly, read the Bible, serve at and beyond the congregation, and to give generously. The goal is to provide a clear mental image of what the preferred future or behavior looks like so that others can readily model it. What are your expectations for members and how do you communicate these expectations in ways that people view as a “get to” rather than a “got to?”
- You get what you reinforce. If your dog exhibits a behavior you don’t like, there is a strong likelihood that it’s something that has been reinforced before. A great example is when your dog brings you a toy and barks to entice you to throw it. You throw the toy. Your dog has just learned that barking gets you to do what he wants. You say “no,” and he barks even more. Heaven forbid you give in and throw the toy now! Why? Because you will have taught him persistence pays off. Before you know it you’ll have a dog that barks and barks every time he wants something. The solution? Ignore his barking or ask him to do something for you (like “sit”) before you throw his toy. I’ve see many situations where a toxic member of church has found that the best way to get what he or she wants is to raise cane by gossiping, triangulating, spreading mistruths and playing the role of a victim. Does your congregation reinforce this kind of behavior? Do you worry more about the needs of that one member or the what’s best for our overall congregation?
- Reward every small step along the way. Consider how an elephant is trained to step up on a barrel. A reward is given to the elephant when a barrel is placed in his living quarters. A reward is given to the elephant when he touches the barrel. A reward is given to then elephant for stepping up on the barrel. Many sessions later the elephant is doing the exact circus routine outlined in the training goals due to consistent, step-by-step training. Whether it’s an elephant, dog or human being, rewards help reinforce positive behavior. Consider other rewards for reinforcing good behavior such as praise, touch, token gifts and your time. Just remember, the behavior should produce the reward; the reward should not produce the behavior. Do you spend time looking for the bright spots in people’s behaviors and find ways to reward it to ensure that it continues?
- Recognize that changing behavior takes time. A trainer needs to have realistic expectations about changing a dog’s behavior as well as how long it will take to change behaviors that are not desired. Often behaviors which are “normal” doggie behaviors will take the most time such as barking, digging and jumping. You also need to consider how long your dog has rehearsed the behavior. For example, if you didn’t mind that your dog jumped up on people to say hi for the last seven years and now you decide that you don’t want him to do that anymore, that behavior will take a much longer time to undo than if you had addressed it when he was a pup. Remember it’s never too late to change the behavior but some will take longer than others.
- Be consistent. When training a dog, the trainer know how important it is to get as many family members involved as possible so everyone’s on the same page. If you are telling a dog “off” when he jumps on the couch and someone else is saying “down,” while someone else is letting him hang out up there, how on earth is the dog ever going to learn what the desired behavior is supposed to be? Consistency will be a key to your successful change initiatives. This is why congregational change efforts require a guiding coalition that consistently communicate the same message over and over. Do you provide your core leaders with a script that summarizes what matters most so that leaders can regularly recite key messages to other members? Do you have a plan for addressing the mixed messages you might be sending to your members?
You may not be called to be an animal trainer, but we are all called to go and make disciples, who in turn go and make more disciples. Hopefully these dog training rules will help you be a more effective leader, communicator and disciple maker.