Ask the Trainer | Knowing and doing are very different things
July 22, 2013
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We have 2-year-old Labradoodle named Sally. We got her as a puppy and went through two levels of training classes. She's a very friendly dog and knows most of the commands we learned in class. The problem is she will only do what we ask when she's at home. Once we go outside, she seems to forget everything! It's so frustrating because she knows these commands and does them so well at home.
The word "know" is interesting. It presumes that knowing something will result in the right action. Think about it from your own perspective. Just because you know you should clean the house doesn't mean you will actually do it. Perhaps a friend has asked you to go paddleboarding or hiking and that seems like much more fun. Which would you choose?
There are many reasons why Sally won't respond to the cues you give her outside. Dogs must to taught to focus in the face of distractions and this is harder for some dogs than others. I often joke that most dogs are well trained in their kitchen! Once a dog has learned a cue in a quiet environment, you must gradually add distractions. If Lucy has a really hard time, try using better rewards or train outside when she is hungry. Some dogs are so distracted, you'd swear they had Attention Deficit Disorder. Learning to stay focused can take time and work, but it is possible.
For other dogs, focus isn't the issue it's making a choice to do what we ask when there is something more compelling. Coming when called is the most common example of this. Why should a dog come to you so they can jump in the car and go home when they can hunt a squirrel or play with other dogs? Knowing they should come and doing it are very different things. You have to make it worthwhile for them to come to you. Again, using higher value treats can help, but to change a behavior you must be able to manage it. I have some dogs drag a long leash so I can step on it and calmly get them when my calls to come are ignored. If the problem only starts when you get near the car, leash the dog up before you get to the parking lot and calmly walk to the car together.
Lastly, dogs don't generalize learned behaviors well. Just because they can execute a perfect "Down" when they are facing us in the kitchen doesn't mean they can do it outside when standing at our side. For a dog to learn that Down means Down anywhere, you have to train it in lots of different ways. Turn your back, stand with your dog at your side, lie down on the floor or give a cue from a few feet away. All of these variations will strengthen the learned cue.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.