It’s frustrating when your dog listens sometimes, but other times acts as if he has no idea what you’re asking him to do.
One of the most common questions I’m asked from dog owners is: “He listens in obedience class, but when we’re home he won’t do a thing we ask. Why?!” Let’s will explore this seemingly odd phenomenon and give you strategies so the dog listens in obedience class as well as at home!
When Dogs Don’t Listen At Home
Some people are caught off guard the first time they realize their dog listens in obedience class only. They’re embarrassed by their dog’s behavior in front of company, especially if they’ve told those friends how lovely their dog has been doing in doggie obedience school. They can’t understand why their dog “is doing this” to them. Surely this dog is pulling one over on his owners, right? Not really. Here’s why. Dogs are good at learning the rules by location. Much like children are allowed to eat candy at grandma’s house, but not at their own, dogs, too, quickly figure out which rules apply where. Dogs aren’t so good at generalizing those rules across locations. It’s almost as if dogs need to be taught how to behave in several different situations before they begin to realize that they can listen to you in other places than obedience school.
In obedience class, the lessons are clear and simple. We work on sits, for instance, for 10 minutes and the dogs get really good at sitting. Then we work on settling on a mat for 10 minutes and the dogs are great at settling. This seems fabulous to the owners – their dog knows what to do and can do it, right? Not so much. What the dog does know is that at that very moment, his owners really like it when the dog sits. That’s it. That doesn’t mean that the dog completely understands sit in any location, under any circumstances, and for any length of time. And this is one of the reasons owners are surprised and disappointed when their dog doesn’t listen at home. Another reason the dog doesn’t behave as well at home as they do in dog class is because most dogs don’t get enough practice at home, in a real life environment. For instance, if you teach your dog to settle on his mat in the living room and don’t change locations or add distractions, you’re setting your dog up for failure when you really need that behavior in real life. When you’re headed to the door with the baby over your shoulder and yell out “Settle!” as you rush to sign the receipt for a package, your dog is flummoxed. “Settle? Surely she jests – we’ve never played this game before!” is what your dog thinking.
The Keys to Making the Transition from Class to Home
Practice. Practicing at home is a must. You can’t get by without practice. Everyone knows this, but it’s one of the most overlooked solutions.. When I say practice at home, I mean regularly. As in: every day. There’s no getting past it – if you don’t practice with your dog, the behavior will always be better at class than it is at home.
Randomize. Don’t be predictable with your practice sessions at home. Mix up the timing – if you usually practice right after you get home from work, practice before you go to work in the morning. If you normally practice for 15 minutes, ask your dog for just a couple of behaviors, then go take your dog for a walk, play with him, or just take a break. In other words, shake up the normal routine. This is one of the few places in dog training where less predictability is actually preferred.
Change the reward. Instead of getting the treats out before you practice with your dog, ask your dog to sit (or whatever behavior you’d like to practice) then reward him with a quick walk outside. No clicker, no food treat, just straight cause and effect [because he sat, he gets to go outside]. Don’t stop there! Make a list of all the things you do for or with your dog that he loves. Your list might include belly rubs, couch time, walks, feeding meals, praise, affection, and play. Now, ask your dog to do a simple behavior and reward him with one of these “real life rewards.” Your dog will suddenly realize that those behaviors he’s learning in class are relevant in his regular world, too! Teach. Occasionally, your dog will know a behavior like nobody’s business in class, but gives you the blank stare when you ask for it at home. If this is familiar to you, you may need to re-teach the behavior from the beginning in your home environment. This is easier than it sounds.
Sprinkle. I think training is most effective at home when it’s unexpected and it leads to fantastic things. Therefore, I like to sprinkle training into my dog’s day as if that’s the standard way of doing business in our house. I like to think of it as the way you can teach your dog to say “please.” Your dog wants you to throw the ball? Ok, have him do something simple for you (target, sit, eye contact, whatever). When he does, throw the ball! Before you clip the leash on to go for a walk, ask your dog to do something. When he does, clip the leash on and head out the door!
Now you know why your dog is having a hard time making the transition from dog training class to home and have the tools to improve your dog’s behavior. If you start today, you can say your dog will listen in obedience class, too!