In part 1 of this series on why your dog doesn’t respond when you give him a cue, we looked at the reasons and circumstances that can cause a dog not to recognize a cue. We determined the dog simply may not have seen or heard the cue for a variety of reasons to which we need to be sensitive.
It’s important to remember that while your dog is not a human, he does have an inner life and is engaged in his world. As his guardian and partner in life, dog owners owe it to their dogs to help them be as successful as they can.
In this installment, we will look at the second reason your dog doesn’t respond to your cues:
The dog doesn’t know what the cue means. Frequently, you might teach your dog a behaviour like “Sit” or “Down.” You will rehearse the behaviour over and over. After a time, you start to see your dog showing recognition of what you’re asking for — and responding correctly to it most of the time. This is the time that many owners smile a satisfied smile and tell themselves “Now he’s got it!” They assume the dog understands what’s being asked and can perform it reliably in all circumstances.
But it’s not quite that simple.
When you teach your dog a behaviour, it can be easy to assume that the dog has learned exactly what you think you have taught him. But you don’t control what the dog learns. The best you can hope for is to strongly influence what your dog will learn through good, clear training techniques. But sometimes your dog will only understand enough of what you are asking to do the behaviour correctly in particular situations or under certain conditions.
Keep in mind that dogs do not generalize well; they don’t relate something easily to variations in the environment or circumstances. They are very literal creatures. If you teach your dog to “Sit” at home, in your living room on the carpet, he may very well assume that he is to “Sit” on cue only in the living room on the carpet!
It takes additional training in a variety of circumstances to help the dog understand that “Sit” means “Sit” no matter where you are. Slight variations like asking your dog to sit on the dog path in the park instead of the carpet at home may seem to him like a completely new and different thing than the original behaviour you taught. So when you give that cue to “Sit”, your dog may look around, confused, because he isn’t at home and he’s not on a carpet.
Good training makes for good responses. In order for your dog to truly “get it”, you may have to practice the same behaviour in many of the situations your dog will encounter out in the real world. Some trainers call this process “proofing.” It helps the dog understand that the cue means to perform the same behaviour no matter what the circumstances. Depending on the dog, the behaviour and the trainer’s skills, it could take more or less variety to help the dog generalize the behaviour.
A part of good “proofing” is knowing clearly and precisely what you expect from your dog. For example, you want your dog to “Stay” but do you want him to “Stay” from a “Sit” or a “Down” or just standing up? Do you want him to stay even if you walk away from him? Even if another person or dog is present? Even if you only use a hand signal or only a verbal cue?
The point is, you need to be clear in defining what your criteria for a behaviour like “stay” is by being as complete as you can regarding all of the conditions under which you expect the correct response. Then take the time to train that correct response under those different conditions before expecting your dog to just perform the behaviour because he seemed to “get it” at home in the living room.
Finally, it’s important to help your dog succeed in these new environments. Each time you move to a new environment or find yourself in a new situation that needs training, be sure to make it easy for your dog to respond correctly. Be extra careful to make the cue obvious. Help your dog out with some of the prompting you used when your originally trained the behaviour if necessary. Keep in mind that your dog is just trying his best to understand and that being successful makes learning fun. With repeated success in new situations, your dog will eventually come to generalize the behaviour and their response will improve.
Great expectations. If you know that your dog heard/saw the cue and didn’t respond properly, you need to look at whether or not the dog was trained for the situation you’re in and understood what was expected of him. Is it possible that you just haven’t trained for that particular criteria or situation? Is your dog looking a bit lost and confused and not just distracted? Then maybe you need to go back and do some more work on that behaviour to help your dog succeed.
Keeping a clear perspective on what you can reasonably expect of your dog given the variety of situations you will take him into can help immensely. Our greatest responsibility is helping your dog by teaching him what he needs to be successful in our human world. Teaching behaviours is the beginning but practice is important. Practice in all of your life situations is even better. Remember that every new situation is a training opportunity. Solid training makes for great responses.
In Part 3 of this series, we will look at one more reason why your dog might not be responding. We will explore whether or not it’s worth it for your dog to do the behaviour you are asking for.
In the meantime, make use of all those great training opportunities in your daily life and find lots of chances to let your dog succeed anywhere and any time. A smarter dog is a happier dog.
“My Little dog” RoBeE @flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“DSC_8264” hiseffigy @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.