Can we teach our dogs a behavior or behaviors that are so ingrained that the dog will perform with 100 % accuracy? This is what everyone apparently wants, but where do we fall short?
I am talking to one of my clients about this proposition. We are discussing recall and the ability of a dog to come back to us no matter what the level of distraction. I describe to her what I mean when I refer to a behavior being so ingrained in the dog’s repertoire that it happens when requested without a “second thought.”
The analogy I use is of a professional athlete at the top of their game. If you ask her (okay, him too) what are the steps they took for their massive tennis return or climbing a wall without falling, in perfect harmony and economy of movements, they might tell you they really do not know all the tiny decisions and steps it takes to perform at that level of finesse. Their movements have become reflexive. Here is the thing: this athlete has had thousands upon thousands of opportunities for practice. Most likely, they have also submitted to intense mind training in the form of previsualization, mindfulness and the like. Modalities that as far as we know, our dogs cannot do.
I propose that, just like the athlete that performs with such proficiency, our dogs can too. The caveat, of course, is that we must give them thousands upon thousands of opportunities for learning and practicing the behavior until it becomes a reflexive response to a given stimulus.
Take for example Ian Dunbar’s PhD, DVM “emergency sit.” The idea behind the “emergency sit” is to teach the position of a sit- defined as the dog placing its butt on the ground, in as many environmental circumstances we can muster.
We need to train so that our dog generalizes that when “x” happens and we ask for a sit- either verbally or by using a visual aid/cue, the dog sits. No matter what! Dr. Dunbar’s idea is that we can stop a dog from chasing cars, wildlife, or our dog running towards an unknown dog, if the dog has learned a very solid sit under all these set of circumstances. Not bad, huh?
My intention, in this blog post, is not to fully describe how one can achieve this, but to make us aware of what is possible first. Then decided under what circumstances we need the behavior to take place before we decide how to go about teaching it.
I have written in the past about Deuce’s compulsion for tugging and how that simple behavior has turned into my most solid avenue for a recall no matter what.
A friend of mine and I are walking our dogs off-leash when we hear dogs that belong to a home in the near distance. We had not seen the dogs approach us because of thick vegetation, but heard them loud and clear when they were just a few feet away from us. At this moment, Deuce began to trot towards the dogs. I noticed that these two are really not very welcoming! So I called Deuce back with my verbal tug cue “take it.” As he heard it, he turned around immediately and we got the hell out of there, hoping the dogs would stay behind and not come after us. The difference between Deuce’s reflexive game of tug and a dog that loves to tug and does it well, is that Deuce will tug anywhere. Most dogs will only tug when certain conditions are met: only inside the home, backyard, with this toy but not that one, only with this person, etc.
Thus the question remains: are we willing to give our dog tons of practice so that behaviors that are important to us become so well practiced and refined that they become reflexive?