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!
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.