Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: The small stuff counts when it comes to teaching dogs cues
In last week's column, I confessed that despite his extensive training, my Beardie Mayday didn't fully understand what "sit" meant. Rather, he knew what it meant in certain contexts, but not in others. Context includes the specific characteristics of the environment, your body posture, your physical orientation to your dog, sometimes even what you're wearing, plus a host of other variables.
When I was sitting in a relaxed position, Mayday didn't understand what sit meant, yet he recognized it as a cue to sit when I was standing. Clearly this was a flaw in my training - one I didn't recognize in years of training!
We always recommend that our students practice in different places, in different rooms and in different locations inside and outside the home. We have a systematic plan to help our students' dogs learn to generalize a command. Generalizing means, "If I have to (sit, lie down, etc.) in the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom, I guess I have to do it in all the rooms of the house." And it means, "If I have to (fill in the blank) at home, at training class, in the park, at Grandma's and at Aunt Sue's, then I guess I also have to do it at Uncle Bill's and at the vet's and at the beach, too."
Humans are good at generalizing, while dogs have to learn to generalize a behavior. This puts the onus on the trainer to practice in different contexts until the dog gets it. Without doing so, it's unreasonable to expect a dog to behave in a situation for which he has not been trained. Worse still is our human tendency to blame the dog for his or her failure.
When I discovered that if I was sitting, Mayday didn't understand my "sit" cue, I couldn't blame it on him. He wasn't being bad or "stubborn." He was demonstrating my failure in his training. He was willing to lie down (which he understood). He was perfectly willing to stand up (which he understood). He didn't sit, because he didn't understand the cue in that context.
This is true for most dogs. Test yours. Ask your dog to sit while you're sitting in a chair, standing with your back to your dog, lying down, crouching, sitting or kneeling on the floor looking away from your dog. How'd your dog do? Chances are your dog usually sat on cue if you were in one or two positions, he or she didn't when you tried something different.
So how does a dog owner get a dog to generalize? You have to pay attention to the small stuff - training your dog in different postures and with different orientations to you. For example, some dogs will sit only if they can see their owner's face. If you face away from your dog, he'll walk around to the front to sit facing you. This is an orientation context. To prevent this, when you practice, turn your body in different directions - sometimes with your left side to your dog, sometimes your right side, sometimes even turning your back to your dog. (With marker training your dog will get this in a very few minutes).
Because dogs aren't good at generalizing, when you change to a new location or orientation even just a little, relax your expectations a bit to help your dog to understand the specific behavior you're looking for. You might need to review an earlier step of the dog's training, but after very few repetitions, the dog will begin to make the association with the change in context.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that our dogs are the product of our training. If your dog fails to respond to a command you thought he or she knows, the most likely reason is that you have not sufficiently trained your dog in that context. What we think of as "disobedience" really isn't. It's just not enough training - our fault, not the dog's.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.