Puzzles...

I am sometimes asked what the difference is between a behavior consultant and a trainer. They are close siblings but different processes. Behavior consulting employs training but the reverse is not true.


Training involves getting an animal to perform a behavior when asked. Good training for pets involves coaching others to be able to elicit that same response. Behavior consulting requires that we look at as many factors as possible – medical, environmental, past behavior and experiences, and more - to understand behavior that is being exhibited and (if appropriate) figure out how to modify it.


“Behavior consulting is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together,” is my fall back explanation.


I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. I find them meditative. I can’t multitask. I have to focus on finding matching patterns and shapes. Recently, I was finishing up a puzzle and my well-worn comparison of puzzles to behavior consulting came to mind. As I turned it around in my brain, I realized that both jigsaw puzzles and behavior consulting require more than “just” putting the pieces of a puzzle together.


I have a strategy when it comes to puzzles. Doesn’t everyone?! There is more than one way to tackle a puzzle. Some more efficient than others. But you settle on the approach that makes the most sense for your brain.


I start with the frame. The nice thing about starting this way is that all the pieces have something in common – a straight edge. So, the frame comes together pretty quickly. From there, I can decide on which area I should focus next. Maybe it’s a distinct color pattern or a specific part of a picture that is easy to piece together. I sift through all the pieces to find those that might fit in this specific area, match up those that do, and eliminate those that don’t.


For the most part, I stick to one area, finish it, and then move on. But if I happen to find an “easy fit” elsewhere in the puzzle, I put that piece where it belongs and set it aside for later. Same thing for two random pieces that magically fit together even though I wasn’t trying to match them. I don’t want to lose them back in the pile of all the pieces that don’t yet make sense to me.


Some puzzles are hard. Colors are just a shade different or bleed together. The shapes of pieces are similar. Patterns repeat with only the subtlest of differences. If I stare too long at the pieces, I stop seeing how they might fit.


I have found that I do my best work when I have fresh eyes, so I’ve developed a ritual of setting a time limit for how long I will work at a puzzle in one sitting. I set my timer for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes and accomplish what I can in that time. It never fails that when I come back to a puzzle after being away from it for a day, I see an obvious fit that I missed before. And then I can build on that success for the session.


There comes a point, usually halfway through finishing a puzzle – sometimes more – when pieces start to fall into place easily and quickly. The rest of the picture helps me see what is missing and where the pieces need to go.


But then, invariably, the last few dozen pieces are stubborn. I don’t know if I get over-confident or over-tired, but I hit a roadblock. It takes me a bit to find the one or two pieces that I need to have fall into place so that I can make sense of the remaining spaces. This is usually one of those times when I walk away so that I can come back later with fresh eyes.


Once that last piece falls into place and the picture is complete, I savor the accomplishment. The bigger the puzzle, the longer I leave it sitting there to enjoy the beauty that resulted from my focused work. A day or maybe a few, but then I put it away and move on to the challenge of the next puzzle.


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