CHERYL VANVOORHIES, M.ED
We all want things to be simple. We live in a fast paced world, living non stop lifestyles. We are in an age filled with simplicity and immediate gratification. Do you need to call someone? You have a cell phone. Do you want to take a picture? Your phone has a camera. Do you want to surf the net? Again, you can do this on your phone. By the same token, you bring your puppy or dog weekly to a dog training class and she is trained for life! Done deal, right? Not quite.
But wait, there are certain behaviors that your dog knows very well. Lets take the sit/stay exercise, for example. In this exercise, your dog should sit and stay on your first verbal cue (command) without getting up until you tell her that she is released. When asked, “Does your dog know how to sit/stay?” Most owners immediately respond “Yes.” Are you sure that your dog knows how to sit/say? Are you REALLY sure?
In general, we tend to be over confident when assessing our dog’s behavior. We teach a new behavior to our dog, practice it at home in a familiar setting, and then we assume that the dog knows it. However, your dog doesn’t completely understand the new behavior until you have taught it in different situations. This process is called generalization. Many behaviors are rock solid in your home, but forgotten when the setting is changed. This is a normal part of learning. When a dog generalizes a behavior, she learns to exhibit it in every context, not just the one in which you taught it.
Lets look more closely at the sit/stay. Keep in mind that the concept of generalization applies to every behavior that you teach, not just the sit/stay. Ask yourself the following questions:
Can your dog sit/stay…
- on a walk when someone approaches?
- when you are putting on her leash before a walk?
- when you open the door?
- when the door is open if a cat walks by?
If you answered, “no” to any of the questions above, your dog probably doesn’t know how to sit/stay as well as she needs to. Let’s test your dog’s ability. Go into your backyard with your dog on a leash. Ask your dog to sit and stay. Give the verbal cue only once. You might be surprised how big a difference the environment makes. For example, my dog has a great sit/stay any place other than my backyard. There she blows me off, completely ignoring me. Why? Because to her the backyard means it’s playtime. Guess where I need to be practicing sit/stay with my dog? That’s right, in my backyard.
So, now you know that your dog probably doesn’t have a complete understanding of sit/stay. What is the next step? You should take the behavior on the road!. Practice the sit/stay in different settings, slowly increasing the distraction level. When I get ready to practice sit/stay with my dog, I start on the patio. Notice, I am not going into my backyard yet because that area is too exciting for my dog. I chose my patio because it is near the back yard, but doesn’t have near as many distractions. By starting in a place more exciting than my house, but less exciting than the yard, I am setting her up for success. Once my dog can sit/stay on the patio, I might practice with the door open to the yard and then move on to actually practicing in the yard. Of course, I always reward her with treats or toys for good behavior. That is the best way to keep any behavior strong.
What I can tell you is this: a little bit of effort will yield a tremendous payoff for both you and your dog by giving you the confidence and security of knowing that you can control your dog in any setting. You will be thankful that you have a dog with a great sit/ stay. I know I am.