I often get the question from clients, early in the training process, how much longer do you think my dog will be in training? Well, my answer sarcastically is — “A lifetime…” Now, I know that is not the answer they want to hear but it certainly illustrates the point that dogs are always in training and good habits developed during formal training take a lifetime of maintenance.
You see it’s like this, everything a dog does is a habit set in motion. They are either developing good habits or bad habits and if a dog is left to develop his own habits, chances are they won’t be in line with what you had in mind as an owner.
The training process can be broken down into what I call the “3 T’s of Dog Training” – TEACH, TRAIN, and TEST. Every new training concept that we work a dog through begins with TEACHING the dog the behavior we desire. This is when we develop the learned behavior in a dog. With most motivated dogs we can teach a new concept relatively quickly. All that is required is good technique, patience, and a willing student.
Once a dog has a solid understanding of the command/concept he has completed the first phase of training and the behavior has become “LEARNED”. What comes next is to train the dog with lots of repetitions, so the behavior becomes “HABITUAL”. This is where we find ourselves spending most of our time training a dog. The amount of time varies depending on the dog and the command/concept. Often I will get dogs in from the same litter and put them through the same training process, however, one dog may demonstrate a tendency of habitual behavior quicker than the others. Often times it’s a matter of how biddable the dog is. For example, the alpha dog from a litter may take longer to develop habitual behavior than its littermates because he is used to doing things his own way. If you encounter problems during the training phase it’s extremely important to be able to read a dog and understand whether your dog is digging his heels in or just confused. Sometimes it’s best to back up a step or two and review the concept. Maybe you advanced the dog too quickly through the concept.
Only after a dog demonstrates HABITUAL behavior do we start to generalize the concept. We use the term generalize in the dog training world to mean teaching the dog that we expect him to perform the command/concept regardless of our location or the distractions. However, it would be a very big mistake to take a dog from the quiet setting of the basement or garage and expect him to perform a given command at a distraction-filled dog park. Why? Because the gap is too large.
When we generalize a concept we need to make sure we don’t set the dog up for failure. I tell clients that in order to keep a good working attitude we need to throw away the calendar and focus on reading and reacting to what the dog is telling us. All too often I hear people say, “My dog is X months old he should be doing XYZ.” That is nonsense. And those same people wonder why their dogs have a terrible working attitude. Well, it’s simple, no amount of pressure is going to help a working attitude. As a professional, it’s important to know when the gap is too large for your dog and when it’s necessary to step back and simplify.
But generalization doesn’t stop at the dog park or when a dog goes home from training. Maintain your standards and don’t allow bad habits to creep in. It’s not fair for you or the dog if one day you allow your dog to get up off of the SIT command and the next day you come down on him for getting up when you turn your back. Make it black and white for your dog.
The training cycle can be summarized this way: Learned Behavior evolves into Habitual Behavior which is reinforced through a lifetime of maintenance. Have fun with your dog and remember dogs don’t live by a calendar. It’s the other end of the leash that will tell us how quickly we can advance a dog.