Several months ago, I wrote about my ten-month-old puppy’s sudden fear of my toy throwing ability in Fright Night Take Two. She is completely over those fears and is a fetch addict… or so I thought.
I live in an apartment where if you are standing in the living room, the kitchen is straight down the hallway. Every time I played fetch with my pup, I sat on the floor in the living room and threw her ball down the hallway into the kitchen. She would then bring it back, I would reward her by tossing it down the hallway again (when she was learning to fetch and drop, I used treats as a reward for her behavior, but then I phased the treats out).
Then one evening while I was getting my cook on in the kitchen, I felt this pressure on my leg. I look down and there was my pup with her toy trying to engage me. With lighting fast speed, I attempted to grab the toy but she evaded me and ran down the hall into the living room. She proceeded to simultaneously play bow and wave the ball around enticing me to “come and get it.” (Pretty adorable, right?)
It dawned on me in that moment, she’d never really learned to fetch. Instead, she had learned a distinct set of steps. In her mind, fetch was played one way. Step One: Mom is in living room. Step Two: Bring ball to mom. Step Three: Mom attempts to chuck ball down hallway without breaking anything. Step Four: Bound after the ball with the grace of a gazelle and the speed of a cheetah. Step Five: Bring the ball back into the living room and drop my prey at my mom’s feet. Step Six: Mom throws the ball again. End scene. Roll credits.
Dogs learn by association (classical conditioning—i.e. association among two stimuli and operant conditioning—i.e. forming an association between a behavior and a consequence).
Have you ever noticed that your dog may be great at sitting at the front door, but fails to sit at the backdoor? Or do you have a dog that is a model student in class, but then ignores your commands at home?
It isn’t that they are “dumb” or are being defiant; they simply haven’t learned the correct association in that particular situation. So throw them a bone and start with the most basic training steps in every room of your house, on every street corner, in other states, at other houses, with other dogs present, with food cooking on the stove….