Updated: Mar 28
Does your dog listen just perfectly in the living room - but on walks your dog pretends to be deaf and you cease to exist? Yesterday he knew and did everything you asked, but today his memory seems to be wiped out? Let me assure you .. you're not alone, I know the feeling! But I've found that with changing the way I think about training my dogs and adjusting my training strategy for any behavior I train my dog, I now find myself way less often in this situation. Let me explain, and show you the exact steps I now follow for training any behavior, so that I can expect my dog to listen in everyday life.
A Skills Framework
Have you ever thought of your dog's "sit" as skill rather than knowledge? Much like playing tennis or the piano, there is a physical component to it, that requires practice to learn and focus to do. How well you perform a physical skill also depends a lot on what else is going on around you, and it varies from day to day - unlike a fact that you either know or you don't. Doesn't thinking about your dog's "sit" (or any other behavior) this way totally change how
we prepare our dogs for listening in all kinds of situations?
If not yet, let me explain. I'll stick with the piano example. Before you ever play Beethoven in
Carnegie Hall, you'll likely start out with practicing scales on the piano in your home's living
room. You won't have anyone listen, and put your phone away to not get distracted. Then you
might start playing more difficult and longer compositions, and perhaps invite your family to
listen to you (who cough and whisper and seemingly do everything in their power to throw you off). But you stick with it and eventually you're ready to play in front of a big crowd ..
Now back to your dog, it really is quite the similar. We first start training a new behavior in a place where she can concentrate on learning what you want from her - your dog's version of playing scales in the living room. Then she needs to practice in different places and with distractions - the dog training version of inviting family to listen to your tune. Then she needs to practice in real life (getting closer: dress rehearsal!), before it's time for her to shine in the dog park (just a quick reality check: even seasoned rock stars can hit the wrong keys, so never expect 100%!).
This is why I now practice with my dogs smarter, not harder! I've seen so many people make the mistake of only practicing with their dog in the living room, and then expect their dog to come when called in the dog park (and yes, I've certainly done this before, too!) But this hardly ever works, and leaves us disappointed and frustrated! Your dog not only needs to learn the skill in different places and situations, but also when asked for it outside a training session. And perhaps we need to get better at rewarding our dogs when we ask them in real life, not only during a training session? So instead of wasting time on training in the wrong place for too long, let's make each training session count by training smarter. Here are the steps I use to train my dogs any skill to a high level of understanding and reliability.
The 4 Steps to teach your dog to listen anywhere
1 Teach the behavior
In multiple short training sessions, teach the skill in a quiet place of your house (with reward-based training).
teach the skill to a level your dog will need later on in real life (e.g. teach enough duration for a down stay, teach your dog to come from a distance and from out of sight).
2 Practice the behavior
Do a short training session in different parts of the house (e.g. bedroom, kitchen, living room)
Do short training sessions around the house (the sidewalk in front of your house, your balcony etc.)
Do short training sessions on your daily walk.
Do short training sessions where you'll need your dog to listen to you the most
3 Practice in real life
Surprise your dog: ask for the behavior when you're NOT in a training session
Do this first when your dog will likely listen to you (= is not trying to chase a squirrel), and when you don't rely on your dog to perform well. Over time start asking for it when your dog is slightly distracted and in different environments.
REWARD your dog generously!
Use this as test if your dog is able to do the behavior without warning, just like real life.
4 Use it in real life
CONGRATULATIONS! Celebrate your dog and yourself!!
Keep rewarding your dog for doing what you've asked
Go back to Step 2 and 3 every so often and make success easy for your dog to keep the behavior strong (a professional pianist will still practice between concerts!)
Now, do you have to follow the steps for each behavior? How about skipping steps? For me, I follow them mostly, but more than that these steps are a framework that help me with 2 things. First, they help me troubleshoot if my dog doesn't listen to a specific cue (e.g. my recall) in a specific situation - rather than calling her stubborn, I find it more helpful to check at which level her skills are and go back to practicing. Second, they help me set realistic expectations for my dog: If I've only taught my dog a skill in the living room, I can't expect her to listen in the dog park. If I know that I won't be disappointed with my dog when she doesn't listen, and I can plan to manage her accordingly to keep her safe.
Now, go and practice with your dog!
... and if have trouble finding time to train your dog, here are some tips on how to make it easier. It doesn't have to be complicated. And if you're still struggling with your pretend-to-be-deaf dog outside, book a free virtual meet n' greet if you like and we can talk it through.