Failed “Dog Whisperess” meets the four stages of [in]competence

I actually “met” one of the most interesting women I know in a hotel bathroom in Oakland, California last year.

Technically, I feel like we knew much about each other before this chance encounter washing our hands. I first became acquainted with Stacy Braslau Schneck on Facebook and through her fantastic facebook page Stacy’s Wag ‘N Train and her website Four Stages of Competence. Reading the wiki entry, I was forced to reexamine my own evolution as a reactive dog mom handler and devotee through the journey I traveled with Monte.

Here are the Four Stages of Competence, per wikipedia:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.

2. Conscious Incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.

3. Conscious Competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.

4. Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Thinking back on my experience learning from Monte, I can say honestly that there were two crossover experiences.


I will say that before Monte, I had never actually intentionally applied aversives to dog training.  As a little girl, I taught my dogs tricks with treats and cookies.  I never would have imagined using a choke, shock, or prong collar.  Yeesh, they only wore leashes for trips to the vet’s office!  (I grew up in a very rural environment.)  If you had asked me if I would ever use a prong collar on a dog (and if I knew what such a thing was), I would have laughed at you.  NEVER.

I never would have imagined there was a trick you couldn’t train with a treat.

I also never lived with a highly reactive dog.  When confronted with Monte’s reactivity, I was stunned.  Frightened, out of my element, embarrassed to admit that even this “dog person” had not a clue as to how to deal with these types of behavioral issues.

My perception of “non-aggressive behavior” was that it was much more serious than a trick.  When a dog didn’t respond to a cue, the worst thing that happened was he didn’t get a treat.  If I didn’t find a way to curb Monte’s aggression, someone – myself, him, my husband, another dog, cat, or child, was going t be hospitalized, or worse.  Truly, Monte’s reactivity would easily match or exceed the vast majority of those seen on a popular National Geographic show specializing in the treatment of “red zone” dogs – plus, he was about the size of three or four dogs put together.

The Dog Whisperer’s show seemed like salvation.  At last, someone who seemed to help dogs like Monte!  I admit, his apparent knack for getting results lured me in, despite the semi-nauseous feeling in my stomach.  It then seemed as though rehabilitating Monte would require I do things I was really morally, ethically, and personally uncomfortable with, like using corrections and corrective collars.

I tried to “suck it up.”  To put my qualms behind me, thinking that “tough love” was the only answer, whether I liked it or not.  Thus began my dog whispering journey.  Needless to say, as many of you know from previous stories of Monte, I was a dismal failure.

Knowing what I know now, it’s hard to say why I failed so badly.  Was it me, or the method?  Both?  Would it have worked better if I jerked him harder, corrected him more severely?  Maybe, maybe not.  Matters not, in the end.

Here is how the young “Dog Whisperess” proceeded through the stages of [in]competence:

Unconscious Incompetence

I never realized there was a deficit in my dog knowledge or handling skills until I got a dog unlike any I’d known previously.  Before getting Monte, I thought I was a good mom and good hobby trainer who could pretty much manage to train my dog to do the behaviors I wished of them.  I didn’t realize I lacked skills in aggressive dog management because I had never had an aggressive dog.  At this stage, ignorance was bliss for our heroine (or villainess?).

Conscious Incompetence

When I was confronted with the full extent of Monte’s reactivity, I was painfully conscious of my incompetence.  I knew there was a problem, but had no idea how to fix it, what options might be available to me, what the potential benefits and risks associated with each might be, or where to go for help.

During this phase of [in]competence, I pretty much “shut down.”  In the shutting down phase, I was so flustered, confused, and frustrated, I just decided to avoid the problem.  I would rather not do anything than do the wrong thing and face what was an incredibly aversive experience – a full blown reaction which generally involved me getting dragged down or onto the street after another dog.

I would either not take Monte for walks, or would only walk him very, very late at night or very, very early in the morning when I could count on not running into other dogs.

Conscious Competence

Here is where things really started to fall apart.  At the time, I was convinced that his behavior was a personal insult, a lack of respect for me as his “leader.”  I understood the concept of “correcting aggressive behavior,” watched hundreds of a certain reality star’s leash pops, verbal corrections, kicks and pokes, shocks and aversives.

Perhaps it was my own discomfort with and aversion to the recommended training techniques that prevented me from achieving this level of competence.  I tried my best, and was discouraged when it was evidenced as “not good enough” through the further deterioration of Monte’s behavior.

Unconscious Competence

Needless to say, I never reached the final stage of competence, one that many traditional trainers have mastered.  Truly, unconscious competence in any skill takes lots of practice and generally, involves making lots of mistakes before one attains this level of mastery.

In my next entry, I’ll talk about my progress through the four stages of competence crossing back over to a style of training which was more natural, intuitive, and ethically rational for me; the compassion and trust-building training methodologies known as positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.

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