Did you know how much the environment matters when you are working with your dog? Have you ever said to somebody “my dog really knows how to do this”, only to find that when you try to show the person, your dog denies all knowledge of knowing how to do whatever 'this' is? It can be a little embarrassing when that happens.
We dog trainers often say to people that this happens because dogs don't generalise learning very well and all this means is that we find that they need to practise something in lots of different places and situations before they truly understand it.
I'll be honest with you, I think that people are exactly the same. When I worked in I.T. I would sometimes hear people at work say that they worried that they would be unable to learn a new programming language or about their belief that they can only work on one part of our system. To me, this is just about generalising learning. Computer programming languages are essentially all the same. For the computer to understand the instructions, the human written code needs to be translated into 1s and 0s.
Of course, there are enormous differences in the rules and uses of the different programming languages – but the similarities are such that if somebody can learn how to program, they will find it fairly easy to learn a new language. The new language is more about generalising learning than anything else – at least that's been my experience of it.
So there is that.
Generalising isn't the end of the story. Our dogs are not robots. They are thinking, feeling individuals that live as emotionally rich lives as we do. How they feel in any given moment has a strong impact on learning. Just like it does with us.
That's why usually learning situations are kept quiet and as free from distractions as possible. Small children are not taken to a soft play centre and then asked to learn how to read. The excitement and desire to play would make it impossible for them to learn.
I've been working with Roxy to help her understand how to get into the travel cage in the new car. Cuillin has enough experience with car travel that a new car made no difference really to him and he was happy to just hop in and lie down. To Roxy it was all different and after the first couple of trips, she started to struggle with the process of getting her lead off and then me shutting the door. So I've been taking them out to the car regularly and we've been practising until Roxy can get in, turn and face me, sit and wait while I take her lead off and remain still while I close the door. Roxy is good at it now. At least, she's good at it when there is just us and nothing else exciting is going on.
A while ago now, I met a good friend for a walk. We had a lovely time. The dogs pottered around enjoying each other's company. Roxy hates for a good time to end so when we got back to the car park and started trying to go our separate ways, Roxy suddenly couldn't do her trick with the car. She started to jump up and down and bark at me, to hump my leg – suddenly she couldn't stand to put more than one foot into the car cage. We took the pressure off. My friend sat in her car. Roxy sat on the edge of the car boot – she quite likes perching there – and she and I had a brief TTouch session. She started to relax and be able to think. Then she was fine to go through the sequence of getting ready to travel in the car.
I thought this worth talking about because so often the temptation is to see a reaction like Roxy's as defiance. A dog who knows what to do refusing to do it. Those are the moments that sometimes lead to a well meaning stranger coming over and suggesting something unpleasant to 'snap the dog out of it' or to make them understand that they don't have a choice about getting in the car.
It is important to know that even in dogs who do understand what they are being asked to do, their emotional state and their health in that moment will affect how able they are to do what has been asked of them. Knowing that helps us to frame the issue in our minds as something other than defiance – and that helps us to look for other solutions.
In our case, taking the pressure off by having my friend move away and then using TTouch to help Roxy relax a little were what was needed.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.