One of the biggest misconceptions owners have about their dogs is believing that once a dog has performed a behavior several times on command, he or she "knows it." Then the owner believes that if the dog doesn't behave as it's told, it is being stubborn or defiant.
I frequently observe this concept on the first night of my beginners classes when I inquire, "Whose dog knows the sit command?"
Several owners will usually raise their hands, and as I ask them to demonstrate I request that they do not pull up on the dog's leash, push the dog into place, use food, use posture to intimidate the dog or repeat the command. To their handlers' chagrin, most dogs simply ignore the command, preferring to sniff other dogs' butts or the ground, leaving their owners frustrated and mildly annoyed.
I quickly point out to the owners that this demonstration is not a test of their dog's intelligence or a critique of their teaching ability, but rather an exercise to illustrate how dogs learn. If the owner is under the assumption that their dog truly knows a command, but has never taught it to perform the behavior anywhere other than in its normal training place or in exchange for a yummy treat, the dog's response in the new environment is sure to be disappointing because he only knows the command conditionally. He knows sit "when the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars."
And nowhere is conditional obedience more apparent as when a dog's response to commands relies exclusively on the presence of food treats. Food is a wonderful socialization tool, training lure in the introduction of a command and as a reward for a job well done. But the fact remains that dogs trained with food that never move past the bribe-to-work stage to that of the delayed reward for a job-well-done one see food delivery as part of the command sequence and when it is not visible or indicated under the pretense of an "air cookie," will not obey since a part of that sequence is missing.
Speaking of rewards, whatever happened to praise as a reward? Maybe it would be more popular if someone could package, market and give it a catchy name, but I still like to think that a heartfelt acknowledgement from its owner should be a dog's primary motivator, with food just the icing on the cake.
But let's get back to how a dog learns. Let's say you've taught your dog to sit in your house or yard by raising your hand containing the treat over his head. You've practiced with him daily until his response to your command is to execute the sit sharply and with focused attention each and every time asked.
You then take him to the park or a training class where he is on distraction-overload from the presence of strange dogs and people, the new environment or perhaps picking up on the energy of your first-night jitters. Without the food lure your dog's attention takes a backseat to all the excitement and he is apparently struck temporarily deaf when you tell him to sit.
Before jumping to the conclusion that he is being obstinate, it's important to understand that because the dog has only been trained a conditioned response in one environment and under the same conditions, he only "knows" the command in that identical situation.
It's up to the trainer to train the behavior in as many different locations and under as many different environmental conditions as possible until the dog understands that his compliance is expected at all times. Knowing a command also means that the dog will perform it in the absence of food or when a vocal command is given without a visual cue.
How long does it take to obtain a habitual and reliable response from a dog? It may take several hundred or thousand repetitions under every imaginable distraction and every environmental condition possible and depends a lot on the character and aptitude of the individual dog.
Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.