Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
The Issue of Reliability
This is a topic that comes around often, related to young dogs who are learning commands fine in training, but have truly not begun to generalize well. It’s important for the humans on the other ends of the leashes (which, by the way should be attached to the dogs!!!) to accept and remember that dogs do NOT learn rules!!! They learn to obey cues, but since may folks compartmentalize their training sessions and are inconsistent about follow through with rewards or corrections in moments that are not part of formal planned training sessions, the dogs quickly get the idea that commands from humans are suggestions that pale by comparison to the cues being presented by a very rich and interesting environment. Being dogs, and for the most part optimists, they also will frequently disobey a command that appears to be much less valuable than the behavior they want to do. “Come” is not nearly as much fun as following a squirrel trail. “Heel” is not nearly as interesting as following the scent of every other dog that has walked the ground in the area before.
The most important advice I can give any of you is to stop being surprised by your dogs. If the phrase, "My dog always does that!" passes your lips very often, you are a slow learner! Why does your dog get to make the same mistake more than twice? Why aren't you prepared to show him what he should do instead?
There are only two real possibilities when you are interacting with your dog. He will either behave well, or not. As an effective trainer, it’s your responsibility to be prepared to prevent, or at least limit the effect of the “not” part AT ALL TIMES. Merely ignoring your command in favor of sniffing is annoying, but probably not so dangerous. On the other hand, waving good-bye with his tail as he takes off on a trail of scent or runs out to bark at joggers or cyclists is dangerous for all involved. Stopping during a heel pattern in a match to sniff the grass is not dangerous in itself, but it is a sign that the dog is reacting to the environment and not putting his focus on you. If the heeling is bad, probably the stays, recalls and retrieves will be less than optimal.
In all of those cases, the most common root of the problem is that in the majority of the dogs' daily lives, the handlers have been relegated in the dogs’ minds to the status of chauffeurs and spectators on the fringes of the dogs’ attention levels. This cannot be allowed if you really want your dog to be reliable. You can’t train formally for attention for 5 minutes and then allow your dog to do his own thing for 30 minutes (including ignoring any number of suggestions that he come to you), and expect your dog to be reliably responsive when the bulk of his practice time in your presence is spent ignoring you, or treating you like an anchor. As much fun as it may be for you to watch your dog run across a field, consider that it’s a much prettier picture if he is running across the field to YOU or WITH YOU.
It’s hard work to be the center of your dog’s fun. But it gets easier with practice. First of all, get good with a long line and / or a Flexi line so that you can guarantee that your dog WILL come when called. That way you don’t have to be mad when he makes the decision to say, “Not right now, I found a good smell!” You can just use the leash to convey the message, “No, you don't get to keep sniffing, you MUST come when called.” Your voice and smile should convey that you are thrilled to see his furry face when he gets to you, and you have no idea how that leash thing happened, but there it is. Keep repeating this until the dog decisively responds to the command.
Next, get used to playing with your dog when you take him out. Take more than one type of toy. Take many of his treats or even most of his meal on the road or to the training area with you, so you can intersperse some command training with some interactive games frequently even in an informal walk. Your dog should develop a habit of responsiveness to commands that is not limited to performance training sessions. Remain at the center of his attention. If you are being interesting, generous, and amusing, you are not depriving the dog of anything by keeping him focused on you instead of allowing him to sniff every bush he passes or play with other dogs while ignoring you.
If you are matching a dog with a history of turning off attention in the ring, remember at your next match that the attention itself is much more important than the dog actually performing any formal exercises. It’s probably going to be more beneficial for you to walk into the ring and play three racing games and a tug game than it is to heel and do recalls, so the dog learns to walk in and keep his eyes on you to see what kind of fun is going to happen now. But even as you walk into the ring with good intentions, you have to be realistic about the dog’s history. If he already has learned that the smells are more interesting than the activities you generally offer in a ring, you need to walk in prepared to interrupt the inattentive moments. That means leash or flexi ON the dog, and in your hand or anchored to you so you can get to it easily if you need it. If it turns out you don’t need it, fine; but if you do need it and it isn’t there, you lose another round. Don’t be a loser! And remember, if your dog fails an exercise because he isn’t paying attention, the correction shouldn’t be applied to the failed command; it should be applied to the lack of attention first. When you have no brainwaves, it’s kinda silly to give a command or signal at all. Correct the inattention. Then reward the return of brainwaves to you. Then try the command.
One final word on this. ONE session will NOT be enough to fix a long-standing lack of respect or habit of inattention. Why? Because dogs are creatures of habit, and they do not generalize new skills easily. So although you might see improvement after one session on Monday, that doesn’t mean that you won’t see the old problems again on Tuesday at a different place, and then see them again on Wednesday, too. It will take a good deal of time for new habits to set in. You should not expect to see a high percentage of correct responses on first tries for several weeks to several months, depending on the dog’s age and history. Young dogs are more susceptible to the charms of the world at large because they have not desensitized to the sights, sounds and smells that older dogs take for granted. Dogs that have been allowed to be inconsistent in responses to commands for a long time have to unlearn what they previously learned, and unlearning is much harder. So, as much as you would like to allow your dog freedom to run, or as much as you would like to do open and utility training off leash, sometimes you have to get past what you’d like to do, and pay attention to what your dog tells you that you need to do. Be a better trainer! If you are with your dog, the dog is learning whether you intend to teach or not. You might as well be better prepared, and teach him what you really need him to learn.