If you have you ever said:

“He only does what I ask when I have treats.”

“She does great in training class, but on a walk? Forget about it!”

“He knows what I want, he is just being stubborn?”

“I’ll never be able to get him to recall to me if he sees something else he wants.”

then this post is for you! 

For dog training classes to be useful, people and dogs need to be able to use their skills in the real world, however, transferring classroom skills to real life situations can be challenging.  Let’s look at a few factors that may contribute to this challenge, and some strategies to  address it so that you can get better results from your training when you need it.

Why does this happen?

  1. Dogs are geniuses, and they are especially skilled at reading a room. They see that treat pouch, smell those treats, note the way you are standing and the tone of your voice, recognize the space you are training in as one you have worked in before, etc.  They know when the training game is happening, and they are all in!  But when the training game is not happening, they may struggle to figure out exactly what you are asking of them.  
  2. Similarly, if the training cues are absent, but cues for other behaviors are present, your dog will likely respond to the strongest cues in the environment. For example, if for six months, every time you have opened the back door your dog has run to the fence to bark at the neighbor dog, that situation is full of cues telling your dog to run to the fence, and bark.  Walking to the door, opening the door, your dog’s feet hitting the patio, etc –  all of these things are signaling to your dog “run to the fence and bark!”. Patterns like this may be so well established that your dog doesn’t even think about what to do, it happens almost automatically. If you have been working on training a recall, a sit, or any other behavior that you would like to use in this situation, your dog is unlikely to respond when asked to do that. Your dog is not being stubborn, spiteful, or willful, they are simply responding to the strongest cues in the environment, and your training cues are not the strongest (in part) because they have not been generalized to a variety of environments.
  3. Your dog’s motivation to do something will likely impact their responses to your cues.  For example, if you always  reinforce loose leash walking with treats, and your dog sees someone they would like to greet, or something they would like to smell, they may want that thing more than they want treats so they might be more likely to pull to access the thing they want.

A Few Ways to Work on This

  1. Change the Picture  

    Once your dog has begun to learn the behavior you are trying to teach them, begin slightly varying the conditions of your training setup. If you have been working on teaching your dog to sit, and you often have your training sessions in the kitchen, once your dog is regularly sitting for you in the kitchen, practice in the living room.  If you always ask your dog to sit when you are standing directly in front of them, have a session where you start by asking them to sit when you are in front of them, then release them and then move slightly to the right or left of them and ask them to sit. Then you can practice asking them to sit when you are slightly to their other side. If you always practice asking your dog to sit when you have treats in your hand, try putting the treats on the counter and don’t move your hand to get one until your dog has sat.  Hide some treat stations around the house and occasionally, surprise your dog by saying “sit” when they are not expecting it, and then when they sit, let them know they did a good job and hop up and go to the treat station to get them a treat.  Similarly, carry treats on walks and occasionally, when your dog is not terribly distracted and maybe they are even looking at you, say “sit” and give them a super high value treat for sitting.

  2. Practice in different environments  

    Don’t just vary the picture at home or in class, but begin training your dog in different environments, such as parking lots, parks, streets, and other public spaces to help your dog generalize the behaviors they have learned in class and prepare for real-life situations.  As you begin practicing in different environments, try to think of new spaces that are  different, but not necessarily harder.  Well, maybe just a little harder, but not much.  Practice makes perfect right?  That means you want to practice success, not failures.  If you try to make a shift from training in the classroom to training in the middle of the park on a sunny Saturday in April, you are not as likely to be practicing success as if you shift from training at home and in the classroom to an empty parking lot.  Practice in different environments, but carefully select environments where you think your dog will be successful.

  3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket 

    If you always use the same treats, delivered in the same way, this may lead to a decrease in motivation to perform certain behaviors.  To build stronger behaviors, consider using a variety of reinforcement strategies. One simple way to do this is to use a variety of treats. Sometimes give your dog kibble, sometimes a treat, and sometimes something higher value like cheese or chicken.  

    You may want to teach your dogs different ways to access their treats. For instance, sometimes you can feed right to your dog’s month, other times you may choose to place a treat on the ground, do a “find it” treat scatter, roll a treat away from you, or toss a treat up for your dog to catch.  You want to be careful with this though so as not to confuse your dog.  Using different treat delivery strategies can be powerful and can help increase motivation, but  treat delivery needs to be somewhat predictable for your dog.  If you are new to using different reinforcement delivery strategies with your dog, I recommend choosing one new strategy to start with and teaching that to your in a low distraction environment just like you would start when training any new behavior, and then begin to incorporate it into your training.  

    You can also look for things that are not food to reinforce behaviors you like. For example, if you are walking your dog and their leash is nice and loose and you know there is a spot ahead they will likely want to sniff, you can signal to your dog to go sniff the spot as a way to reinforce the desired, loose leash walking behavior. Whether it is a thrown ball, an opportunity to sniff or swim, or a back door opened at the right time, using things in the environment that your dog wants can be great ways to reinforce desired behavior and increase motivation for doing the behavior in the future. 

    In this video, I am working with my young dog Castor on his emergency Turn behavior and you can see all three of these strategies: changing the picture, practicing in different environments and using treat delivery and varying my strategies to increase motivation.

    Remember, training is an ongoing process, and it takes time and effort to learn how to live alongside a different species in a way that works for all. By using positive reinforcement, changing the training picture,  practicing in a variety of well chosen real-life situations, and paying attention to what is motivating to your dog, you can help your dog learn how to use their skill set in many environments.

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