How to Have the Dog You Always Wanted

Calm dogs while talking

Do you wish your dog would walk calmly by your side past other dogs?  Or that she would sit and stay when guests come to visit (instead of jumping all over them and thoroughly embarassing you)?  Few people struggle to train their dogs to respond to basic commands in the house with little to no distractions.  The real challenge comes in getting them to respond to your cues in the “real world”, when you need it the most.  Here are some tips to help you transition your dog from basic training to the real world.

Don’t ask a 1st grader to do graduate level work

My daughter, Anna, just completed 1st grade.  She’s doing great at reading and is several grades levels ahead of where she needs to be.  I am, of course, very proud of her and impressed with her progress.  Now, let’s imagine, that I go to the book store (Northshire, of course), buy her a copy of Shakespeare and then ask her to read it and write a paper discussing how it reflects the social and political climate of the time.  When she (inevitably) fails at this, I complain that she is being stubborn, doesn’t listen, or is ignoring me.  This sounds ridiculous, right?  But, this is essentially what many people do to their dogs on a regular basis.

Shelties sitting outside

Learning how to sit on cue in your kitchen with very little distractions is only the first step of training.  Consider this first grade.  Sitting on cue when greeting visitors that come to the house, or outside in a busy park, is much more advanced.  Depending on the dog, this is more equivalent to high school, or even college level, work.  If you try to skip directly from 1st grade to college, your dog is bound to fail.  Instead, very gradually increase the difficulty level, setting your dog up to succeed at each step.  Try sit in the living room, then outside in the back yard.  If the backyard is too distracting, try something easier (perhaps the garage), or use a better reward, like chicken instead of a dry biscuit.

Be proactive and plan ahead

Think about how your dog is likely to behave in certain situations and come up with a plan ahead of time to help them (and yourself) out.  If you know guests are coming over, leave your dog’s leash by the front door.  Putting him on leash is not going to make him sit on cue, but it will at least make him more manageable until his training catches up.  Or, keep him from knocking your guests over until he calms down enough that he will listen to sit.

If you’re training your dog at the park, scope it out ahead of time.  Are their certain areas where there tend to be a lot of other dogs?  A pond with a lot of ducks?  Plan on training in the quieter/less distracting areas first and only after your dog is responding well there, should you move into the more difficult areas.  If your dog is only mildly interested in ducks, but crazy about people, train around the ducks before moving near people.

Dog and donkeys

Be aware of your environment.  Don’t wait for the behavior to fall apart and then try to fix it.  Instead, try to prevent the behavior from falling apart in the first place.  Is another dog approaching your yard while you’re training your dog?  Do you know that your dog gets very excited around other dogs?  Move your dog away from the street, behind a bush (or even to the back yard if necessary) before he notices the other dog.

Have a simple basic plan for the steps you will take if your dog becomes too distracted or excited to respond.  For example, “If Fido won’t come in the front yard, I will 1) get closer to her, 2) use better treats or 3) move her to the side yard.”  Planning ahead and being proactive will set your dog up for success which means she will have more opportunities for reinforcement (which means the behavior will strengthen) and that you and your dog will be less frustrated.

Understand the basics of learning theory

Learning in general is defined as a change in behavior due to experience.  Everything we do impacts learning and learning impacts everything we do.  In the simplest terms, Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that behavior that results in pleasurable consequences for an animal will tend to increase and behavior that results in unpleasant consequences for an animal will tend to decrease.  In learning theory lingo, if a behavior increases, that means it’s being reinforced and if it decreases, that’s because it’s being punished.

Sees cat

Consider this scenario.  You are walking outside and your dog sees a cat.  Your dog loves chasing cats – it’s one of his favorite things.  You hate it when he chases cats because he goes crazy barking and pulling at the end of the leash, practically pulling your shoulder out of the socket.  You’ve been working on “come” at home, so you ask him to come and, for the first time ever, he actually does! You tell him he’s a great dog and pet him on the side.  Which is likely more pleasurable for your dog?  Getting pets and praise from you or chasing a cat?  For most dogs, the answer will be the latter.  If that’s the case, what do you think he is likely to do next time you call him away from a cat?  You guessed it – he’s unlikely to come to you unless the consequences of coming are more pleasurable than chasing the cat.  If you want your dog to respond to you consistently, then you must be more reinforcing than the squirrel.  This is where food (or toys) come into play.  Which brings me to my next point.

Take food with you – everywhere

I do not mean that you should need food to get your dog to respond to you.  However, if you want your dog to listen at the park (or at the vet, or the kids’ soccer game, or..you get the idea), you need to train her at the park. I just returned from taking my dog to the vet for vaccinations.  I brought food with me and used the time in the waiting room for training.  When other dogs went by, I asked him to sit and worked on stay.  Each time we go to the vet, his behavior improves because he’s being rewarded for good behavior.  As he becomes better trained, then he gets rewarded less frequently.

I don’t need food to get him to respond.  But, most good trainers bring food with them so if they find themselves asking their dog to do something very difficult (such as come away from a deer), the dog gets reinforced for it.  Over time, those trainers will use the food less and less, but they still have it to periodically reinforce previously trained behaviors and to heavily reinforce the really hard stuff (like ignoring a deer or dropping that dead rabbit).  Also remember, that training in these real world environments is high school or college levels, so make sure you’ve already covered grade and middle school!

If you apply these tips to training your dog – and practice regularly – you should start to notice an improvement in his or her responsiveness at those times when you need it most.

What other tips have you learned about getting your dog to respond in the “real world”?


Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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About Science Matters

The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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