We hear this phrase weekly at group class from distraught owners whose dogs have failed to perform a behaviour in class that they do perfectly at home. Why would this be – have the dogs suddenly forgotten or are they simply misbehaving? The truth is – neither!
Firstly, dogs aren’t good at ‘generalising’ learnt behaviours. This means that often the sit/stay perfected in the kitchen is exactly that – a behaviour which only has meaning for the dog when performed in the kitchen. Take it to the park or front door and it looses all meaning! Behaviours need to be trained in many different environments before they become reliable.
Secondly and probably most importantly is distraction. Let’s side track for a moment and think back on learning to drive a car. I learnt to go up and down our long driveway first. Then I nervously tried going up and down our quiet ‘no exit’ road. Perhaps a week later I braved an empty car park. It was literally months before I tackled a busy high way! Even then, things that had been coming automatically, like changing gears or using the indicator were harder to perform because there were so many more distractions around me!
This is exactly the same situation many of our dogs face when they are suddenly asked to perform behaviours in distracting situations that have only ever been practiced in distraction free environments. The 1 minute down stay with owner 5 paces away is now way beyond the ability of a young dog that is in a class with 7 other dogs and at least that many people!
The key is to identify distractions in training, introduce them slowly and always set your dog up to succeed. So let’s look at that down stay with duration and distance. We’ve increased the distraction so for now at least, we need to reduce either our duration or distance and perhaps both! Start with a 5 second down stay standing next to your dog. Did they succeed? Yes? Great, try for 5 seconds again but this time take one small step away! If they fail at any time then take a look at the situation – are you too close to distractions, did you push the dog too far? A dog whose owner sets it up to succeed by taking distractions into consideration is far more likely to remain enthusiastic about learning than a dog that is constantly pushed beyond it’s limits.
So get out of the kitchen and start taking your training ‘on the road’!