In my dog training practice, I often come across people who get angry and frustrated with their dogs because, from their point of view, the dog is “being stubborn” or “not listening.” But, usually, this isn’t because they’re being obstinant. It’s because there’s just an insufficient understanding of how dogs learn.More often than not, the problem is owners not realizing there is more to training than working with your dog in a the living room a few times. Or they come to class and then expect the same results at home. You can’t get a few good responses during one or two sessions and then expect the same response in every situation. It doesn’t work that way.
- 1. “Acquisition” – the dog acquires the behavior
- 2. “Fluency” – the behavior becomes automatic
- 3. “Generalization” – the dog will do the behavior anywhere (this is what most people want)
- 4. “Maintenance” – use it or lose it
- Acquisition: This is the stage where you learn to sit on the bike, balance, and co-ordinate the pedals and handlebars in order to move forward. You need to think of everything you are doing and your mom and dad give you lots of feedback and encouragement.
- Fluency: You can get on the bike without much thought, your feet find the pedals and you can propel yourself forward easily. Now you can pedal faster and faster and don’t have to think about what you are doing – it just happens.
- Generalization: You’ve ridden your bike on mountains, in valleys, on city roads, on grass, on asphalt, on gravel (carefully!) and through streams. No matter where you are, you can hop on a bike and begin to ride – the steps you take are the same.
- Maintenance: Here is where the new skill and all it entails becomes part of your skill set. If your friend says, “let’s go for a ride”, you know exactly what it means, be it in the woods or through the city. Although, if you haven’t performed the skill in a while, you may need a small refresher.
The same goes for dogs. If you want your dog to respond in a particular manner (e.g. a recall in the park), you need to take the time to teach the behavior, practice it, generalize it and maintain it. Otherwise, the dog will not have the skill set to respond as you like.
My expectations for a puppy learning “sit” on cue begins with small criteria – follow a hand signal in the house with no distractions. I gradually increase my criteria to ensure success at each stage before moving forward.
“Sit” while someone is doing jumping jacks is different than “sit” in an empty room. “Sit” in the park when other dogs are running around is even more advanced. I would not expect my puppy to do that in the early stage of training. Any change of location may mean having to reduce criteria and go back to an easier stage. In dolphin training, this is called “New Tank Syndrome.” When they move dolphins to a new tank, they often haveto reteach some steps of behaviors the dolphin learned when it was practicing in its original tank. Of course, the more times he is moved, the faster he’ll generalize and understand that swimming through a hoop results in getting a treat no matter which tank he’s in. We are subtly affected by this same principle: Studies suggest that people do better on tests if they’re given in the same room in which they learned the material.
- Have you practiced in enough places?
- Have you trained him around enough distractions?
- Has it been a really long time since you asked him to do it?
- Has the behavior been maintained or has he simply forgotten it?
Without fluency, generalization and maintenance, your dog may be dynamite in and around the house but this does not mean he will be as responsive in other situations. But with patience, understanding, and practice, great feats can be performed in any room in your house. Or any room in the world.