“But he knows sit!”
In the beginning training can happen amazingly quickly which may look like magic, but it is not, and it is only half the story. Teaching new behaviors at home when not much else is going on is easy; teaching the dogs in our lives to respond to cues and perform those behaviors consistently and in a variety of environments takes work and requires thoughtfulness, patience, and consistency. Ah…if only I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “but he knows sit!”. The solution to getting reliable behaviors across a variety of environments is usually pretty straight forward, however, it is not always easy, and it takes time. Attempting to build trust and communication with any individual takes time and dedication, and even more so when the individual belongs to another species.
We often train behaviors in one context (like a training class, or our living room or back yard when no one else is at the house) and then we make a leap and ask the dog to perform the behavior in a more challenging situation (like at the park, on the trail with other dogs and people, or at our house when we are having a party).
Unfortunately, when we think “but he knows sit” or “but she knows how to walk nicely on a leash” or “well she will do it at home when I have a treat!”, rather than “hmm….I’ve made a jump here that I have not prepared my dog for”, we may move toward trying to control the dog and maybe even blaming the dog, rather than controlling the environment, shifting our expectations, and adjusting our training plans For example. If someone’s dog knows a behavior like sit at home, and they take that dog to the walking trail and say “sit” when another dog is going by, and the dog does not sit, after repeating sit a time or two, some people may then try to make the dog sit by pulling up on the leash, pushing down on the dog’s hind end, saying sit louder, etc.
This is less than ideal for a few reasons, but I will just tackle a couple of those reasons here. First, the problem is almost certainly not because the dog is being “bad” or “disobedient”, but the problem is more likely that we have not trained the dog to perform the behavior in this environment. So we have a dog who we have not prepared with the skills needed to navigate a challenging environment, and when they are unable to perform as we would like, we sometimes put the blame on them rather than using this information to assess our training plans. Can you imagine having a small child who has just learned to read and who is reading well for their grade level, and then taking them to Disney Land, and setting them in front of their favorite ride, or Disney character, giving them a book, and saying “no rides today, and read this aloud into this microphone now.” That child may have the skills to read that book at home, but asking them to read in this environment and to ignore some of their favorite things requires a whole different skill set and a lot of time and teaching.
It’s worth noting we can fall into a trap of trying to control our dog with treats too. While I always suggest having treats on you (just like you always have a leash and collar with you when you are walking your dog!), ideally those treats will be used to reinforce desirable behaviors after they happen. If we are in a situation where are dog can’t respond to what we are asking them to do, and we pull out treats to try to get them to do the thing “look Snoopy, I have a treat, now will you sit?”, whether our dog can now do the thing or not, we have made too big of a leap and are not in the right zone for teaching, and can end up building some behaviors we don’t want.
When we Train the Wrong Thing
A couple of practical problems with the approach of forcing the dog to do the thing, or using a treat to convince the dog to do the thing, are that 1) we humans are often reinforced in the moment for the behavior of forcing the dog to do something, 2) the dog is still practicing the unwanted behavior , and 3) #s 1 & 2 often result in patterns of “dog does the thing, we make dog stop doing the thing and do another thing, dog then does the thing again, we then make dog stop doing the thing again” and on and on.
People follow the same laws of learning as other species, and so just like we can reinforce our dog’s behavior to make it stronger in the future, our own behavior becomes stronger in the future when it is reinforced. Say a person has a dog who walks nicely on a leash at home and pulls like a freight train when at the park. When this team goes to the park and the human tries to walk the dog, every time the dog starts pulling the human pulls the dog back next to them and makes the dog sit or stand for a few seconds. The team starts walking again. The dog starts pulling again. The person pulls the leash to force the dog back to their side and make them sit or stand for a few seconds. The team starts walking again. The person pulls the leash to force the dog back to their side and make them sit or stand for a few seconds. If the person is able to get the dog back at their side to sit or stand for a few seconds, the person’s behavior of pulling the dog back to them is likely belong reinforced, meaning, it will likely get stronger in the future. If the dog continues to pull on the leash every time they start walking again, we can assume that the dog’s behavior of pulling on the leash is also likely being reinforced by something (probably moving forward). So we now have a team repeatedly practicing a sequence of behaviors that are getting stronger and stronger for each member of the team. If practice makes perfect, what are we perfecting in this situation?
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
This type of situation is unfair and likely frustrating to all parties involved, and in some cases could even end up being dangerous. As much as possible we need to teach behaviors outside of the context in which we need them, and intentionally and systematically build in complexity. Even this probably sounds easier than it is! Take the example of leash walking from above, there is not one single recipe for layering in complexity to work toward polite walking. Rather, each team will require their own plan based on the needs of the humans and dogs involved. Perhaps one plan might look something like: train walk at my side indoors with no equipment on dog, next add harness (still indoors), next add leash (still indoors), move to fenced back yard with no harness or leash, add harness and leash in fenced back yard, find an empty parking lot with no one around and practice, find a parking lot with people but one where you can get distance from those people, work in parking lot with decreased distance to people, work at park but far away from any activity, etc, etc. I think you get the idea. You would only add complexity when the dog was successful at the level you were working, and if your dog was not successful at the level you were working at, you would decrease complexity until they were successful and slowly move up again from there.
Another key component to a successful training plan is what is often referred to as management. Sometimes we will have to be in the deep end of the pool with our dogs when we have not trained for the situation. In those cases, we need solid management plans in place that will help us set the stage to make it less likely or impossible for the dog to practice undesirable behaviors. A couple examples of using management would be keeping a dog behind a baby gate or on leash to make it impossible for them to jump on someone, or not letting your dogs in the backyard when the neighbor dogs are outside to prevent barking or fence fighting. Management deserves a whole post of its own, but it is often a part of a well thought out training plan, and this is especially true when we are talking about “problem” behaviors.
Some may be able to develop and implement these types of plans on their own, but many will benefit from the help of a qualified training and behavior professional. Either way, it is key to understand you are teaching another species how to communicate with you and how to navigate a world that is often full of things that make no sense to them. This kind of work takes time, patience and consistency. The dogs we live with are amazing creatures! They often learn quickly and seem like geniuses. When they don’t respond to our requests, it can sometimes be hard not to take it personally or not to think that they know what they “should” be doing and are just willfully ignoring us. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt, and give your dog and yourself some grace. You and the dog in your life are both learning a new skillset that includes communicating with a member of another species and this takes time. Training is not magic, it takes time and work, but it is so worth it.