Updated: Jun 23
Have you ever worked at something really hard? Maybe a certain word in a crossword puzzle has you stumped. Or maybe you’ve been trying to ride a piece of single track without dabbing. Maybe you’ve got an intractable personal or family problem.
Whatever the problem is, if it’s hard we don’t usually charge at it heedlessly and chip away until we’re done.
What we do is work on it a bit then walk away - noodle it around in our heads for a bit, and then try again.
Walking alway isn’t failure; it’s commitment. Most complex problems take a series of engaged trying and seemingly disengaged noodling.
In the case of the crossword it may take as little as two or three words of ‘ignoring‘ the problem for us to try again. For mountain biking a tough trail it could be a matter of days or weeks. For the family issue it could be weeks to months.
In none of these cases have we given up.
Our dogs are similar. If we’ve taken the time to show our dogs that we do not present them with unsolvable problems, solving a novel problem still may take time.
And the time will look like engagement followed by disengagement. It’s the disengagement, noodling time, when many of us let down our dogs. We see the disengagement as quitting and we either add more pressure: buckle down and solve this! Or we decide the puzzle is too hard: Here, let me help.
Neither helps the dog. Both don‘t take into account the necessary brain work many of us experience when tasked with something hard.
All good trainers must be students of their dog’s body language. Most dogs will create physical space between themselves and the problem (similar to putting down the crossword and walking away). The question is, have they quit? Or are they thinking and giving themselves space to come back and try again?
Hard problems cause stress. Not scary tiger in the bushes stress, but stress nevertheless. We want our dogs to be able to deescalate and try again, meaning we have to let them walk away.
Some dogs have emergency itches that have to be addressed NOW, or they need to jump in the stock tank if they’re on sheep, or then need to sniff. However your dog deescalates ask yourself two things: is this problem hard? Does the dog re-engage after their time out? If both of these are true then your dog is noodling - they are actively engaged in the work and are seeking a solution. If the solution is there and they have the ability to solve it, stand back and let your dog work.
Too often we see signs of stress and think we’ve pushed too far, and there are certainly times when that’s true. But if the dog comes back, if the dog says, let’s try again, you know you’re on the right track.
You cannot force them to stare at the puzzle until it’s solved in the misguided notion that that is how puzzles get solved. Nor is snatching the pen away and doing it for them, or dumbing it down until it’s so easy they can get it without effort helpful.
Struggle begets grit, perseverance and success and we do well when we remember how hard a truly complex problem can be, and allow our dogs to take the time to work through to the solution. Whether it’s a tough word in a crossword, a technical piece of trail, or a family dilemma, we find power in sticking through to the solution no matter how many 'times outs’, and how much noodling it takes.