So often in training, when a dog doesn’t perform the desired behavior in response to the given cue, we blame the dog. I often hear, “He’s blowing me off!” or “She’s being stubborn!” However, in reality, the handler just didn’t make it clear enough for the dog to fully understand what the person was trying to teach.
If your dog doesn’t “get it,” then look in the mirror and see that it’s you who needs to make the exercise easier for the dog to succeed. If the dog succeeds, the dog earns reinforcement. Reinforcement makes the behavior more likely to increase. That’s what you want, right?
It’s imperative to keep in mind the four stages of learning: acquisition, fluency, generalization and maintenance. First, the dog has to begin to acquire the skill of focusing on you (the behavior). Then, you continue to practice so that the behavior is fluent and occurring regularly. Next, generalize the behavior of focusing on you in a variety of places and settings, always beginning in a low-distraction environment and, as your dog makes progress, moving to a slightly more distracting environment. Do this before ever practicing in a highly distracting environment (a busy park or sideline of a dog sports competition). Eventually, you’ll reach the maintenance phase of learning. Maintenance is when you continue to practice and reinforce the specific behavior so that it stays solid.
Here’s an example: I used to be a very good mandolin player. I first learned to play a few tunes and I got pretty good because I practiced daily. Then I became fluent and could play a lot of tunes well at home. I then generalized the behavior of playing the mandolin to a variety of places (at home with friends, at a music jam in public, playing on stage, etc.) and I maintained that level of proficiency for a while. But life got busy and I stopped practicing. Result? My mandolin playing isn’t so great anymore.
The next time your dog is having difficulty with a specific behavior in known or new environment, stop and give pause to how you may be able to make it easier for the dog to succeed. That’s what we’re all after – success. Success for you, success for your dog. And by all means, make training FUN!
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. and Europe. www.coldnosecollege.com