This statement always makes me smile when my client first contacts me and tells me of their issues they are having with their dog. Yet they will interject with ‘but he’s really smart’ and the reason why every pet owner thinks their dog is really smart is because the dog has outwitted them. And as soon I point this out they will normally let out a bit of chuckle and will agree with this. So I will begin to explain why the dog is behaving the way it is. I will then go into why and how we can fix these issues.
After my last blog, to me it made sense to do this one. My intention in every blog is to enlighten the dog owner about how dogs really think, pros and cons to anything and everything pertaining to living with and training dogs.
How many times before have you heard ‘Oh he’s a product of his environment’ and this is the reality for most dogs. They learn to live in a way that is favourable to them. Yet for those that are far more vigilant about their dog’s behaviour, it is we who show the dog where his advantage does and does not lie as we can control and manipulate his environment to help define clear and consistent boundaries to ensure on-going learning. So in other words, by placing the dog and myself in a room with little to no distractions and using various training techniques, coupled with some training equipment i.e.; food, tug toy, leash and collar.
In dog training we are always considering the immediate environment when working with our dogs. Is my dog ready for this level of distractions? What type of distractions really bother my dog? Is it another dog, noise, people, food? In all areas of dog training we are incrementally training the dog in every way. Remember baby steps.
A lot of people will also tell me ‘He’s pretty good at home but not so good when we take him out’ and my question is ‘Did you train him to behave out and about?’
I’m giving you some of my gold here but every good trainer knows that behaviour is, for the most part, contextual. This means that the dog has learnt either by accident or on purpose to behave in a way that is favourable to the dog in that particular environment coupled with one or many signals. An example would be when you are in the kitchen preparing your dog’s meal and he sits and waits patiently for his food. It is because as a young dog as you were getting his food ready he would sit, you would praise and possibly even reward him with small pieces of his meal. Yet, without being in the kitchen and no presence or promise of his next meal do you get this behaviour or the intensity of this behaviour?
To be really successful in shaping or creating new behaviour a trainer needs to be considering and maintaining the motivation as the less motivated the dog is the slower the dog will learn if at all.
“Everything originating in the human ‘Umvelt’ has to be transformed in to ‘dog things,’ in order that the brain of the dog can grasp and co-ordinate it” (Feb 1939:24). In this regard, a dog’s ability to play provides a decisive factor. Sarris notes that play is an “infallible” individualizing indicator of a dog’s temperament and relative intelligence E. G. Sarris (University of Hamburg)
Sarris was in fact looking to create a test that he could use to help him to assess intelligence in dogs and after two years, 2,000 dogs later, he had discovered that intelligence could not be measured but what could be assessed or measured were the dogs’ levels of trainability. The measurement was, and still is, taken from the dogs desire to eat, play, retrieve, tug of war. As this is absolutely true of any working dog, just ask your trainer how much drive does his dog have? And if the dog is good the trainer will smirk and he will usually say something like ‘more than enough’. Because the dog’s desire to meet and satisfy innate and learnt behaviours is so much more intense, he in turn learns everything so much faster. As with all training, if well-structured and the trainers timing is good, dogs can literally go from step to step to step.
Just as with humans, dogs can only take in so much information at any given time.
We all peak in the ability to be able to concentrate and take in new information. I had a trainers tell me years ago that he stops every session when the dog is peaking as far as learning goes. Well my question to that is ‘when do you really know when the dog is actually peaking until you have taken him past it?’ I can always see when a dog is starting to struggle in learning anymore so this is generally when I stop a session. Yes I will stop a session when the dog is going really well too and I’d rather leave those moments in his head. All I am saying is, if you’re constantly stopping sessions before he has actually peaked, or showing signs of fatigue, how do you know if the dog has actually peaked as in a lot of instances I have been surprised at the amount of information the dog has learned. I do not recommend doing this in every session as this can be extremely difficult for the dog yet always looking and recognising those signs will make your training more fun, rewarding and maximise every session. One more point that I need to add is that dogs also need a day off from work as we do. It does so much for muscle, energy and concentration recovery and not to mention it will increase the dogs desire to learn and work even more. On those days off just take him for a walk and enjoy it.
I have had many dogs come in for boarding and training and found that the first session may only last for 4 or 5 mins and, it doesn’t matter what I do, I cannot get the dog back on track. Yet over the next few days the dog’s concentration span will grow very fast to something like 15 to 30mins. I have also seen dogs with zero training have an amazing concentration span. This is always indicative of how much innate drive the dog has. Remember all dogs are different to each other.
If you cannot get a dog to concentrate on you it makes it almost impossible to teach with ease. It’s like trying to drive your car properly while sending a text message.