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Context is Everything

Author: Nicole Stewart | Date: September 12, 2012

Have you ever met someone at a work function and then two days later run into that same person at the grocery store and it took you a moment to remember their name?  Out of the context of work, it can take our brains a moment (and a little conversation) to let all of the dots connect.

This kind of thing happens for dogs – especially young ones – all the time.

The truth is that they don’t generalize information they learn from place to place, person to person, surface to surface, etc.  That is to say that if a dog learns to sit with me, in my living room, on the rug, doesn’t mean that he will know it when I move training outside, on the grass, with my husband.  Every context can throw a dog off.

This is hard for humans to understand because if we learn that 2+2 = 4 in the living room, we still know it when you take us outside or when someone else asks the question.

My best (and most embarrassing) example happened this summer when I went to Wisconsin for a week with my family and my dog, Finlay.  There was a gated yard, but just past that, was the lake.  Finlay’s breed is built to swim, but I really haven’t given him the opportunity for several reasons.  The reasons don’t matter, but what does matter is that I haven’t worked on his behaviors in and around the water.  Mistake.

While we were up there, he was in the gated yard for most of the week, whining behind the fence as we went to ride in the boat or play in the sand.  On the last day, I wanted to give him the opportunity to play in the water.  This is a dog that would not let me out of his sight for a minute and came every time I called him while he was within the confines of the house and yard.  The second I let him out of the gates, however, it was as if he had never heard the words Sit, Down, and, most definitely, Come.  He was buzzing with the excitement of the new fun lake and my voice clearly had taken on that of the Peanuts adults, “wah-wah, wah, wah, wah.”

What do you do in this situation?  Well, it’s easy to label the dog stubborn or having selective hearing, but I urge you to consider that the context has changed enough to throw them off and they actually don’t know or hear you in that moment.

So, here’s how to bridge the gap:

1.  Send husband off to physically retrieve the pooch-on-the-run.

2.  Reduce the 3 D’s:  Distance, Distraction and Duration – put pooch on a leash.

3.  Get the treats out and start at the beginning in teaching the behavior.

4.  Once you have success at short distances and less distraction, SLOWLY add one or the other in baby steps.  Increase distance slowly while keeping distractions to a minimum and then vice versa when you increase the distractions.

Though this can be frustrating to have to go back to the beginning with your dog’s training, if you do, the learning curve is a lot quicker than when you first taught it to him and you save yourself a lot of frustration.




I feel like I am a much better dog owner now that I am educated.

Michelle N. | View Client Testimonials


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