All too often people excuse their dog’s lack of cooperation because “he’s just so stubborn” or because “she knows how to do it, but just ignores me!” However a vast majority of the time it isn’t because your dog is willful, but because they weren’t thoroughly taught the skill yet. Dogs are very specific about how they learn. Just because they can come in the backyard and sit in the livingroom means next to nothing when at the beach or at the dog park. These are vastly different environments with major distractions. So how do we get cooperation and focus everywhere? We need to genuinely teach our dogs each step and variable, ensure they truly understand the concepts - and set them up for success rather than setting them up for a test they may fail. In the end, it's oh so worth putting in the time to work throught these steps! Having a dog who actually understands what you are asking for and can happily do a few core skills through real life distractions makes your life together so much more enjoyable.
The four steps for a thoroughly trained skill are:
- Fading the Lure
- Building Value
Fading the Lure
One of the main ways we teach a dog a behavior is to lure it. Meaning we hold onto a treat, place it close to their nose or even let them nibble, and move the treat. Naturally, dogs follow. If you take that treat and lure upwards it raises their noses, which tends to cause their rear to drop and voila! we have a sit. Luring is extremely useful to show our dogs what we want them to do and how we want them to move. However, they’ll quickly learn that the behavior is done as a response to the lure. Some dogs are so focused on the food they have actually no idea what the rest of their body is doing - and how to consciously choose to repeat that action again. Once your dog is consistently able to sit, down, spin, heel, etc with a lure we want to fade the lure from our hands and teach a verbal cue or hand signal as soon as possible. Until we can ask for a skill without the treat in our hands, it's difficult to move on. We need to know that they do understand that ‘sit’ means ‘place your bottom on the ground’...and that they aren’t waiting for that treat to lure them each time
Now that we have a skill on a cue, we need to be sure they love doing it! If early on they learn that sitting gets them amazing things, they’ll have a deeper association that sitting equals fun. You can’t just be a hotdog dispenser, but do need to actually be fun! Think along the lines of “adding obedience to the game, rather than the game to obedience” (Shade Whitesel) to build motivation and drive to cooperate. This is a step we’ll need to revisit frequently to maintain skills. If your dog enjoys tug or fetch, mix in some short obedience between throws. When you call your dog, reward with tug! Motivation is crucial for reliable cooperation. Dogs, just like us, prefer to work harder for things we love to do.
‘Proofing’ means ensuring that your dog understands ‘sit’ not only under pristine conditions, but with distractions as well. Can they still perform with a toy on the ground? How about with your other dog in the room? With kids playing soccer nearby? It’s imperative to start slow with the distractions. Jumping to distractions that are too difficult will only serve to frustrate you and your dog, and not teach them how to ignore distractions. When properly set up, slow and steady, proofing can become a fun game for your dog. They can start to see distractions as if they were all intentional - a setup for them to overcome and win!
Finally, generalization! Dogs unfortunately are not good at generalizing behaviors on their own. When they learn sit, they learn ‘oh, I place my bottom on the ground while facing you in the living room with someone on the couch in the afternoon while you are standing….” you get the idea. Change one piece of the picture, and it’s new to your pup. We need to practice the behavior at different angles to us, while we’re sitting or standing, inside, at the park, in the backyard, in the driveway, etc. Think of this step like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.
Fading the lure, building value, proofing and generalization may seem like a lot to have to do - but these are the pieces of the puzzle your dog needs to truly understand a cued behavior. When your dog "won’t listen" next time, take a step back and look at what else is going on. There may be a variable that is too different or overwhelming for your dog to translate. Practice with an easier version to reward success - then try again!
If you’re interested in focusing on these skills, check out the Advanced Manner’s, Beyond the Backyard class and Denise Fenzi’s book “Beyond the Backyard” We’ll specifically be teaching our dogs how to cooperate with their basic obedience skills in real life situations. Next session starts April 11th at 5pm.