Why Is My Dog Doing That?
So, you've attended class, and you've practiced at home, but as soon as there are distractions around it's like your dog has never been trained ever in their life! You are not alone, this is one of the most common concerns that dog families come to me with.
The desperate, frustrated emails I receive from dog owners usually look like this, "he's really smart, but just so stubborn!" Or sometimes they write, "She knows that what she did was bad, but she just did it anyway!" And most commonly of all, "he's trying to dominate me all the time! Help me become the leader of my pack!" <face palm>
In the quiet of their familiar, home environment, most dogs are relaxed and calm. They happily respond to the easy requests from their humans and life is so good. But as soon as they head out of the house, or if someone comes over to visit, it's as if the dog has forgotten everything they learned in school. Often these dogs are labelled as disobedient, stubborn, dumb or even dominant but in fact, the root cause of the problematic behaviours is actually incomplete training.
To complete the process of learning a new behaviour, you and your dog must go through all four stages of learning: acquisition, automation, generalization and maintenance. Many people successfully complete the acquisition stage and even get started on making the behaviours automatic, but only on rare occasions do dog owners get passed stage two and onto the next one: generalization. Only after generalization has been completed and a behaviour has become reliable 90-100% of the time it's requested is it considered to be in the maintenance stage.
Dog's Learn Differently Than Us
Although humans and dogs acquire new information in a similar way, dogs process that information differently than humans do. Dogs are much more contextual, whereas humans a really quite good at generalizing. For example, if a teenager learns to drive in a Honda Civic (like I did - thanks Uncle Mike r.i.p.), and then was asked to drive a Ford Focus, they'd probably be able to drive the new car fairly well. Apart from learning where the lights and signals are and adjusting a few things, the learned skill of driving would be generalized fairly easily.
Dogs, however do not generalize learned skills so easily. Any change in the context of a behaviour increases the likelihood that they will no longer understand what you are asking them to do. They just aren't able to generalize what you taught them to a new environment and there are new parameters for the behaviour to be performed within. They need your help to guide them through the process.
For example, lets say you teach your puppy how to sit in your kitchen. You practice it a lot, and your puppy really seems to be getting it! Now lets say later that day you have a couple of friends come by to say hi and meet your new puppy. As they greet the puppy in the entryway, new puppy jumps all over them! Oh no, that's embarrassing, right?! But that's ok, you taught your puppy to sit earlier so that should do the trick, right?! You go ahead and ask for a sit, but instead of a proud dog-parent moment, your puppy ignores you and continues to greet your guests with their dirty paws on you guest's jeans. The puppy in this example, isn't bad, stubborn or dumb, they just simply don't understand what you are asking for in this new context.
The Keys to Learning
Through training exercises and games, my goal is to teach my dogs the skills that are necessary for them to live safely, happily and peacefully with my family unit. I don't aspire to create obedience, but a dog that chooses polite behaviours that I have taught them through the principles of positive reinforcement.
They keys to successful learning, and creating reliable responses to cues in any environment are:
4 Steps to Generalization
It's really important to consider many different elements besides environment or location when you are training because there are many things that can cause a puppy to struggle in a training sessions. Don't forget about distractions, the stress or emotional state of the puppy, your position to the puppy (front, behind or really far away) and who is giving the cue. But as your puppy becomes more savvy, training in each new context will go more and more smoothly and quickly so eventually, you won't be starting from scratch each time you train.
Just remember to always start off with relaxed criteria for your puppy, in easy, low distracting environments and gradually progress the intensity or difficulty of the training. If something is going terribly wrong, ask yourself what YOU need to change to create a successful training session.
Keep clicking and keep having fun!
So you've completed a Reactive Rover Foundations Course or Workshop and now you're wondering what to do next? If your instructor has another reactive dog specialty course, join the class. Even if it just means that you have a controlled environment to practice your basic training, you'll be able to focus on your dog and master the skills you've learned, in a safe place. The only way to make the skills you've learned automatic is to practice, and typically level two reactive dog classes are a lot of fun and challenging for all participants anyway.
If there isn't an option for further reactive dog coursework, sign up for a class where you already know the subject matter so you can focus on working with your dog and growing her confidence. Be sure to let your instructor know that you will need special care and may need to hang out on the sidelines to practice some of your foundation skills, such as, "look at the dog." Only move into the classroom once you are sure your dog is ready for it, and spend short periods of time in the training space with lots of breaks outside if it becomes too much for her.
If you plan to work on your own, check out my blog post called The Art and Science of Closed Environment Exposure for ideas on how to continue your working sessions safely and effectively influence learning.
Here are some general guidelines for the next steps with your reactive dog in a class setting:
1. Always check the environment first, without your dog, before you bring him in so you know what to expect and don't get caught in tight spaces or hallways.
2. Plan ahead to create a quiet space for "down time" where you can put your crate or plan to keep your dog in the car between working sessions or to give a break. Bring a blanket to cover your crate so she can rest up and not be bothered by other dogs or people in the training area.
3. Set up your home base for treats and gear ahead of time, before you bring your dog in, so once he enters the training space, you can give him all of your attention.
4. When it is time to enter the building, use the "get behind me" behaviour before going through any doorways, gates or go around a corner, so you can check out the space for safety before your dog enters.
5. If you are the only one with a reactive dog in this particular class, be sure to let your instructor know that you will enter the working area after the class has started so there won't be any other teams around the entrances to the building or the ring.
6. Also leave before the class ends so you are the first one out of the ring, but be aware of teams arriving for the next class. Don't get stuck in a small corridor or hallway with other people or dogs. If you see someone coming towards you, just calmly express that your dog is reactive and ask that they go back so you can get through safely.
7. Pay close attention to your dog's signals and body language and decided based on what you see, what level of exposure you'll work at. Don't assume that because last week one thing went well that will same behaviour will exist this week.
8. Choose your criteria based on the behaviour you are observing today, and in this moment and build on it at a progression that is conducive to success. Don't overwork your dog and push her super-threshold. You want her to win.
9. When entering into a new environment, relax your criteria slightly and briefly. As your dog begins to generalize the behaviours in various environments, the adjustment period for criteria will take less and less time.
10. Increase your rate and value of reinforcement so that it is higher than the competing motivators in the room so your dog wants to work with you to earn more of it.
11. Do whatever it takes to keep your dog sub-threshold, for short periods of time, so they can learn.
12. If she's refusing to take food, she's over her threshold, Learning cannot take place at this level of trigger presentation. You must reevaluate and proceed under threshold only.
13. If a reactive episode occurs, increase your distance from the trigger. Unless it's a safety concern, try to regroup and refocus your dog first, then creep away slowly from the trigger so you don't inadvertently escalate the level of arousal.
14. Take away the opportunities for your dog to rehearse the reactive behaviours. Each episode only means more money in the reactivity bank account, and we want that account to run dry so we can build up a stronger account for more socially acceptable behaviours.
15. Be ready to use your Emergency Response Plan frequently and automatically while in a highly stimulating environment. You have to practice your emergency behaviours ahead of time. Body blocks or get behind me, watch me or eye contact, targeting for recovery, all of these emergency behaviours are useful and necessary as you continue on with your training.
At the end of each class or session with your dog, update your training journal and note the successes of this session and note the opportunities for improvement next week. If you encountered a reactive episode ask yourself the following questions so you can plan your next, more successful class or session:
Remember to be patient with yourself and with your dog. Learning takes time and changing existing behaviours that are motivated through emotion like fear, takes practice and careful counterconditioning.
And don't be too hard on your dog, they aren't trying to be bad, they are just performing behaviours they know have worked in the past to get them what they want. Besides that, as Karen Pryor says, "It's only behaviour!"
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.