Dog trainers who offer puppy or basic classes are often asked the question, “Will my dog be obedient after this class?” That’s a hard question to answer. Since most basic classes are held for one hour a week, and most courses run 6-8 weeks, it would be quite a high expectation to think that any dog could learn a variety of different skills and be reliable performing them after, at most, 8 hours of education.
If the owners are diligent about practicing at home, puppies can certainly learn the basic skills of sit, down, stay, come, and the other usual behaviors that are taught in most classes (see What to expect from a basic dog training class). But will they be “obedient?”
When most people think of their dogs as “obedient,” what they usually envision is that the dog will do what they ask when they ask it. What they are looking for is reliability, and under a variety of different conditions. And in that case, the answer to the question of “will my dog be obedient after this class” is pretty much – no. A puppy will not be an expert at any of the basic skills after graduating a puppy class any more than a graduate of first grade will be able to perform calculus.
The biggest problem dogs have in learning is that they are just terrible at generalizing. With practice they can learn to get better at it, but the concept is very difficult for these animals who live so much more in the here and now than we do.
If you first learned how to chop onions in your grandmother’s kitchen, it would be very easy for you to generalize that skill in any kitchen. You would know that you could probably find the knife in a drawer; you’d look for onions in the refrigerator; the cutting board would be on the counter, more than likely near the sink. You could take what you learned in your grandmother’s kitchen, and using that knowledge adjust for a different environment.
But that’s not how your dog’s mind works. The dog who learned to sit in the living room may very well be confused the first time you ask him to sit in the bedroom. And the puppy who learns how to sit anywhere in your house may be thrown for a loop again when you ask for the same behavior in the driveway.
The Three D’s
Because of this difficulty in generalization, to achieve reliability with cued behaviors you have to practice in different places, with different things happening, to help the dog learn that “sit means sit” no matter where he is or what’s going on around him. A good Intermediate or Advanced class will address the following “Three D’s”:
- Duration When you are first teaching a puppy a new skill, the focus is on helping him understand that the cue is associated with the behavior you want him to perform. Stay means “don’t move until I release you.” This can be a tough one for a lot of pups, since in almost every other way we are teaching them to do something, and for this behavior we are expecting them to not do something. Some pups can make it up to a few minutes after a basic puppy class, but there are many who are still too fidgety to achieve more than 10-20 seconds. When you work on duration, the goal is to teach the dog to stay for however long it takes until he is released.
- Distance Most basic skills are taught with the owner standing right in front of the puppy. Because of their trouble with generalization, if you were to take a few steps back from your puppy and ask him to perform a sit, he would probably take those steps with you before he complied. Sit to him means sit in front of you, because that’s the way he was taught. So when working with distance, you are teaching the puppy that the behavior is expected to be performed in the same way if you’re two steps in front of him, across the room, or even out of sight.
- Distractions Life is full of distractions, most of them unexpected. You’ve probably already noticed that if you’re working with your puppy outside and a squirrel suddenly appears in the yard, you’ve lost your puppy’s attention. In most basic puppy classes the distractions of other pups and people in the room are enough, and since a good trainer sets up the students for success, not much else is added. In a good Intermediate or Advanced class, many other common distractions will be introduced so that your dog can learn to focus on you and achieve reliability in the real world.
A puppy may have learned how to come when you call him across a classroom and in his living room. In a continuing education class, that same puppy would practice coming while other dogs are being walked in his path; with a ball being thrown past him; around a piece of cheese sitting in the middle of the floor. The more practice the dog gets with the picture changing around him, the more reliable the behavior will be. And the more “obedient” he will become.
Finding a good continuing education class
Just like any other class, you should look for one that offers only positive reinforcement techniques. Trainers who may offer Intermediate or Advanced classes can be found at the following listings:
- Truly Dog Friendly Trainers
- Pat Miller Trainer Referrals
- Karen Pryor Academy Trainer Referrals
In the Orlando area Intermediate classes are offered at the GODOGS facility in Oviedo. The next class is scheduled to start on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 11:30 am.