We try to teach dogs but how do we know what they have learned?
All responsible dog people are urged to find a good trainer, attend classes and produce a wonderful canine citizen, this goes hand in hand with the saying that ‘there are no bad dogs just bad owners’ and that society thinks that it’s irresponsible not have our dogs spayed and neutered. The ‘rules’ around dogs appear to be black and white, good and bad, nice and nasty but how easy is it to abide by these largely unwritten laws on responsible dog guardianship?
After all we should be aware of exactly what we are teaching dogs, right? Traditional classes focus mostly on control and heaven forbid if you are on the end of a lead of an out of control dog! The expectation is that dogs should sit calmly and wait for instruction, for example sit, stay and walking to heel, we even gain rosettes and awards for those who have mastered these activities. However, do these activities produce model citizens?
Our dogs do need to learn how to live in our world and to respond to certain cues especially in circumstances that would be dangerous to the dog, not coming back, picking up and eating things off of the ground or jumping up on strangers in the park. Most of the learning that happens though is not during organised training sessions, this may not be a surprise to you, but dogs are learning all of the time and may make connections that the humans haven’t even noticed. It is often the case that some ‘unwanted behaviours’ are actually inadvertently reinforced by us, we just don’t notice it.
A good example would be my dog Hattie, our morning routine is tea and toast and then out for our walk. Hattie gets very excited at this prospect and starts to rush towards the door, back and forth, looking at me as if to say ‘oh come on!’. I noticed though that Hattie was performing this behaviour much earlier in our normal routine, long before I have finished my cup of tea. What’s this all about? By the process of elimination, I discovered that Hattie’s cue for the impatient behaviour was the disappearance of the last piece of toast from my plate. To test this, I left a small square of toast on my plate and there was no sign of the behaviour. How clever was she that she recognised that once the toast was gone, we always went for a walk!
We really do need to be aware that our dogs are learning many things from us and our creature of habit patterns, without us actively engaged in ‘training’ sessions. Just watch your dog the next time that you pick up their lead, change your shoes or have to spell out w a l k ?