Dog Sense: Does your dog really understand its cues?

Cheri Spaulding and her dog, Geo.

“My dog knows it! He’s just being stubborn.” Do you find yourself saying this when your dog doesn’t follow your cue? I said it with embarrassment in training class before I was a trainer. 

What’s happening with the dog is a lack of generalization of the behavior. My dog would perform the behavior with some success in my living room. But I didn’t practice it with him in other places – the bedroom, garage, back yard, etc. I expected him to perform as he did in my living room in the highly distracting environment of the classroom. I also felt a great deal of peer pressure. I stated, “He knows it!” 

By practicing only in one place and then blaming the dog when he didn’t perform in another place, I set both of us up for failure. In my defense, my instructor 30 years ago would only smirk when I made my defensive declaration. He could have told me about generalization and how to easily accomplish it. I want you to avoid my mistakes. You can do it by tweaking your vocabulary and training.

The first thing to do is remove unhelpful phrases and words from your training vocabulary. “He knows it,” “My dog is stubborn,” and “No” are the top three. They translate into unsuccessful training.

Start by asking for behavior from your dog; let’s use “sit,” for example. Say it once; wait for the count of two. Your dog either does it or not. That’s the test of their ability. If they can’t perform as requested, think about why they didn’t. Where have they been able to sit at your request before? How far away from your dog were you? Was the environment too busy?  

Set up the environment first when teaching something new. Work on “sit” in a quieter area for a while; then move to progressively noisier areas for your practices. Giving progressively better rewards for your dog’s hard-earned training success helps, too. Kibble is fine for “sit” when your dog has practiced it the 100th time in your living room. It’s certainly not enough reward for coming to you at the dog park! That should earn your dog 60 seconds of happy talk, pets and special rewards.

Dogs learn by association. When you get your training tools out and call your dog to the spot where you usually practice, they get excited. Behaviors you have practiced with success before go smoothly. But what happens when you change something? When you sit instead of stand? Or when you take your dog to practice in another location?

I often ask my students who are standing while asking their dog for a behavior they have practiced for several weeks, to sit in a chair and then ask their dog for the same behavior. Often the dog has trouble following the cue, at least at first. That small change to us can be huge to our dogs. The dog didn’t suddenly become stubborn. It means they are still learning the cue, and they need more practice.

If your dog has not yet generalized the behavior, then it’s likely they will struggle a little when the training environment has changed. 

With consistency, practice and motivation, there isn’t a lot your dog can’t learn. 

There are still times when either my dog or I get frustrated. I walk away, give my dog a break, take a few breaths and think through my plan, and then try again. 

If you are really stumped on how to teach your dog any behavior you want, contact a qualified trainer. My dog Geo and I compete in Nosework, an odor detection game. I regularly hire a trainer to coach us through issues we are perfecting. We are always learning.

Cheri Spaulding is a certified dog trainer at Rock Nest Training & Pet Care. She lives in the Creswell area.



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