Why is it that your dog can do all sorts of behaviors perfectly in your home or in a well-known environment but when you go to the park, the veterinarians office, the show ring or anywhere where other humans can see your training on display it seems like he has no idea what you're talking about? Or worse maybe you assume he has a malicious agenda to embarrass you.
Well, it would be easy enough to say the dog is simply distracted, which maybe he is. Or we could say he is not motivated by your request. What is motivation anyway? Really it is a social construct, a label that doesn't actually describe much about behavior. But as it serves us for this blog we'll think of it as driving the behavior outcomes. Well ideas like drive and motivation tend to be things we internalize for dogs like it is something they either have or don't have. I hear people say things like "he's not food motivated", or "he's not motivated by toys" but this usually tells me more about the dog in this environment rather than tell me anything about the dogs ability or willingness. If we think of motivation more like a measuring device of shortened latency from the time we ask for the cue to how long it takes the dog to respond we are getting closer to the actual idea. I would also be watching for a level of, for lack of a better word, enthusiasm. If I have quick response with some enthusiasm then I might say that dog is motivated by the activity or reinforcer during our session in that environment
When we say the environment in this way, we are not about to get into a conversation about climate change, rather we are looking at the setting, the time, the temperature, other factors that impact our ability to build a learning culture with successful outcomes. My living room where my dog is asked to perform many cues with many successful repetitions with many rewarding outcomes is a rather simple environment. The park down the street with the rabbits, squirrels, other dogs walking, the stream running through it, the cars driving past it, well this is a very complex environment.
The environment surrounding your dog is full of "contextual cues" so we have to remember that we are not asking for the same thing even though we are saying the same words. We are verbal creatures and we rely on everyone, dogs included to understand that these words have meaning and to us they mean the same thing in different places. We think of our commands as the only information or discriminating information our dog is getting and then he's making a choice to comply or be "disobedient" but again, this is a BIG PROBLEM. The conditions of the environment matter greatly to your dog. If you are in a place with other animals, strange sights, sounds, smells, or a place that has a different context (like somewhere you go to play regularly) then the words have less or different meaning in that space or in the presence of those environmental cues.
Here's some useful anthropomorphism for you. Let's look at human parents as they teach their children limits and boundaries in the home. Then they go to the park and turn their young children loose on the playground with other kids. Parents often get frustrated if their children are being too energetic with their peers, taking big risks and especially if they won't leave the playground when told it's time to leave (recall command). These children are in heightened states of arousal, their energy is being reinforced by the play, they are being encouraged by the other children or the equipment (slide/swing) giving their body rushes of chemical reinforcers and the context clues at the PLAYground is to PLAY not to "LISTEN/OBEY/BE POLITE". Parents are also different in this environment. They feel as though they are on display so they are also behaving differently that they might in the house. Now, turn this example on our dogs. Why won't your dog walk on a loose leash past dogs in the park, why won't he "leave it" when we see rabbits running, why won't he "come" when called at the dog park. It's simple. You and he have not learned these behaviors in association with these environmental conditions.
If you taught the cue "leave it" with a milk bone. You cannot expect him to perform this behavior with the moving prey animal at the park until you have done enough repetitions and generalization of the context "leave it" until it becomes the concept "leave it". Simplify your training, then do it daily. Teach your dog when you ask for "leave it" you want him to turn away from whatever the object (use many different distraction items) and it will be highly rewarding through the things that motivate him the most. Start in familiar environments and work up to busier and more complex environments, slowly. If we get out to the park and your training treats are less valuable in this environment you have an issue. Your primary reinforcer (the food) may not motivate your dog in that environment, it could even be frustrating to have you waving food in his face when he wants to chase the rabbits.
In a previous blog we talk about "proofing behaviors". This is an idea where the behavior has been performed with fluency in many different spaces and times. When I try to teach people about strengthening behaviors I want them to consider helping the dog move from learning the CONTEXT of a cue like "sit", "come here", or "leave it" to understanding the abstract CONCEPT of a cue. This would be a more comprehensive understanding for the dog that the cue is expected and performed in many complex environments. The key to doing this is building a trusting and cooperative relationship. Your training sessions need to build the desire to perform cues based on understanding the nature of consequences. Not only should reinforcing consequences drive future behavior by earning something wonderful (like food, play, touch, etc) but they should create a conditioned emotional response in the dog. This happens internally. Training should be fun for both participants and when we achieve this we get more predictable outcomes and more reliable dogs in complex environments. This will help improve your relationship with your dog as you begin to understand which factors attribute to his learning and you gain competencies in your ability to train your dog like a pro.