Does your dog listen sometimes and other times act like he has no idea what you’re asking him to do? Many people find that their dog either listens well in class or at home, but doesn’t listen well in other environments. They’re embarrassed by their dogs behavior in front of company, especially if they’ve told those people how well their dog is doing in training. They can’t understand why their dog “is doing this” to them. Surely this dog is pulling one over on their owners, right? Not really. Here’s why.
Dogs are good at learning their commands by location or in context. Much like children are allowed to eat candy at grandma’s house, but not at their own, dogs quickly figure out which rules apply where and with who. Dogs aren’t so good at generalizing those rules across environments. It’s almost as if dogs need to be taught how to behave in several different situations before they begin to realize that they can listen to you in other places than obedience school or in your home.
In obedience classes or during an in home training session, the lessons are clear and simple. We work on sits, for instance, for 10 minutes and the dogs get really good at sitting. Then we work on settling on a mat for 10 minutes and the dogs are great at settling. This seems fabulous to the owners – their dog knows what to do and can do it, right? Not so much. What the dog does know is that at that very moment, his owners really like it when the dog sits. That’s it. That doesn’t mean that the dog completely understands sit in any location, under any circumstances, and for any length of time. And this is one of the reasons owners are surprised and disappointed when their dog doesn’t listen all the time.
Another reason the dog doesn’t behave as well in various environments is because most dogs don’t get enough practice, in a real life situations. For instance, if you teach your dog to settle on his mat in the living room and don’t change locations or add distractions, you’re setting your dog up for failure when you really need that behavior in real life. When you’re headed to the door with the baby over your shoulder and yell out “Settle!” as you rush to sign the receipt for a package, your dog is confused. “Settle? While she’s in the other room? We’ve never played this game before!” is what your dog is thinking.
The Keys To Get Your Dog To Listen All The Time
Practice. Practicing at home and in other environments is a must. You can’t get by without practice. Everyone knows this, but it’s one of the most overlooked solutions. When I say practice, I mean regularly. As in: every day. There’s no getting past it.
Randomize. Don’t be predictable with your practice sessions at home. Mix up the timing – if you usually practice right after you get home from work, practice in the morning. If you normally practice for 15 minutes, ask your dog for just a couple of behaviors, then go take your dog for a walk, play with him, or just take a break. In other words, shake up the normal routine. This is one of the few places in dog training where less predictability is actually preferred.
Change the reward. Instead of getting the treats out before you practice with your dog, ask your dog to sit (or whatever behavior you’d like to practice) then reward him with a quick walk outside. No clicker, no food treat, just straight cause and effect (because he sat, he gets to go outside). Don’t stop there! Make a list of all the things you do for or with your dog that he loves. Your list might include belly rubs, couch time, walks, feeding meals, praise, affection, and play. Now, ask your dog to do a simple behavior and reward him with one of these “real life rewards.” Your dog will suddenly realize that those behaviors he’s learning in class are relevant in his regular world, too!
Teach. Occasionally, your dog will know a behavior like nobody’s business in class, but gives you the blank stare when you ask for it at home. If this is familiar to you, you may need to re-teach the behavior from the beginning in your home environment. The same goes for other environments. This is easier than it sounds.
Sprinkle. I think training is most effective at home when it’s unexpected and it leads to fantastic things. Therefore, I like to sprinkle training into my dog’s day as if that’s the standard way of doing business in our house. I like to think of it as the way you can teach your dog to say “please.” Your dog wants you to throw the ball? Ok, have him do something simple for you (touch, sit, watch me, whatever). When he does, throw the ball! Before you clip the leash on to go for a walk, ask your dog to do something. When he does, clip the leash on and head out the door!
Now you know why your dog is having a hard time making the transition from one environment to another and have the tools to improve your dog’s behavior. If you start today, you’ll have a dog that listens better in no time.
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