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Helping Your Dog Figure Things Out

environment learning puzzle Sep 24, 2019

Ever felt frustrated because your dog wasn't "listening"? 

Most dog owners I've talked to over the years have experienced that kind of "failure to communicate" on occasion.

If this has happened to you, one reason could be that your expectations are not realistic.  Learning is a process with many small increments.  It takes time, repetition, and troubleshooting.  

You might expect that if your dog has done something successfully for you a few times that he "knows" it.  Unfortunately, doing something on a physical level is not a guarantee that your dog has learned and understands it in every context.

Getting your puppy to sit with a food lure doesn't mean he will sit for you just as reliably if you were to ask when he's excited about greeting a visitor or ready to chase a squirrel!  

Dogs are keenly aware of changes in even the smallest details around them. 

You've probably noticed how your dog reacts to something new or different.  He may have learned what "sit" means when you lure with a treat, but when the context changes even slightly, the word does not have any meaning without all the information from the old context - your body language, tone of voice, the treats, the location, etc. 


Think of the context as if it were a large puzzle with hundreds of individual pieces.  Fitting together a few pieces doesn't complete the whole picture but it's a very good start.  As you work on the puzzle, you accept that certain things are true:

  • It's not always clear at first how individual pieces fit into the completed picture.
  • Unsuccessful attempts are valuable information.  You succeed or you learn.
  • Time, patience, and perseverance are necessary to reach your goal.
  • Success is measured in small accomplishments that accumulate gradually.
  • To stay motivated you celebrate and take pride in your progress no matter how small it seems.

The same things are true when you're learning something new, and it's absolutely the same when your dog is learning.  

Teaching and learning never go forward in a straight line from A to Z. 

The steps in between have twists, turns, and detours.  Sometimes you must go back and start over because you missed a turn and got lost!  

So if you believe your dog isn't "listening", then I suggest that you consider the following.

Ask yourself if your expectations are in alignment with the normal ups and downs on the path of learning.  Are you expecting your dog to make the leap from A to Z and skip over the necessary increments in the learning process?

Have you given each piece of the puzzle it's due importance in relation to the whole picture?  Are you accounting for the context?  In other words, have you thought about how the environment impacts your dog?  Are you helping your dog figure out that "sit" when you're in the back yard means the same as "sit" when you're in the kitchen?  Maybe you will need to teach it from the beginning if your dog seems lost or confused.  Are you OK with starting over?  You should be because educating is leading.  If your dog gets lost, he'll need a leader.

Have you thought about what's in it for the dog? 

If he sits for you in the kitchen with a food lure, he's rewarded with the treat.  When he's in the back yard surrounded by all the smells and sounds of nature, what does he get out of sitting when you ask him to do so?  What does he want most at that moment? Can you offer a reward that satisfies that desire?

So if your dog appears to be "not listening", remember that it's only one piece of a much bigger puzzle.  Helping your dog figure out how the pieces fit together includes considering the influences outside your dog that make up the environment and the rewards. Each new environment is a new puzzle piece to fit into the complete picture.

This month in Dog Wisdom Connection, the focus in the membership is on how the environment and rewards influence your dog's behavior. We are observing the ways in which our dog's actions are triggered by things in the environment. Our next step will be to change the environment so that the dog's behavior will also change.

If you'd like to jump on board and share in this project, there's still time to subscribe. This membership is for dog owners who want to learn how ordinary actions can have extraordinary results in less time and with more fun!

Join us with a $1 trial before we close on Sept 30.  Click here to get the details.







Sensitive Dogs want to be heard, not trained. When you recognize the emotion behind the behavior, the behavior changes.

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