Why does your dog pull you all over the place but walk beautifully for your sitter? Why does he pee in one room of your house but not others? Why does she jump on you but not Aunt Sara? Why does she not take stuff off your counters until you are out of the kitchen?

Hard to trust a dog who’s so unreliable. Guess in response you’ll have to monitor/supervise/restrain/constrain/avoid and otherwise completely contort your life forever…. Ha! Kidding. By the end of this post you will know why s/he’s like that and how simple it is to change.

Selective memory? Stubborn? Or something else?

Longtime dog POGs and well as newbies are often flummoxed by this seemingly erratic behavior (oh for a dollar every time a client describes a dog’s “sudden,” “for no reason” action). They give voice to many possible explanations: this is just how dogs are; he’s very stubborn; she’s not very bright; I need to be more dominant, etc.

Thankfully, none of these is accurate in most cases. Here is your Keep It Simple, common-sense reason for unreliability:

Your dog doesn’t do X all the time because s/he doesn’t know s/he’s supposed to. Which means you haven’t finished teaching yet. Your lesson is not complete.

See, dogs have this interesting way of learning that is very specific, and it can often fool POGs into thinking their work is done. Then when their dogs suddenly don’t do that thing, POGs blurt out things like “What is wrong with you?” and “You know this. You’re just being stubborn!”

Take the standard method of teaching Sit: Person says Sit, slowly raises a treat up and over a dog’s head till the butt goes down, then says GOOD and gives him the treat.

Humans see this pattern of two connected dots: Sit-reward.

Dogs see THIS pattern of connected dots: Sunny-warm-family room-TV on-kids nearby-near my bone-Mom standing facing me-staring-wearing shorts-hair pulled back-smells like peanut butter-holding FOOD!-in right hand-hand turned up-I hear a bird-cat just walked in-Mom said SIT in slow, high voice-moving FOOD!-must follow-butt touches floor-I get FOOD! And PRAISE!

…I may have missed a few, but you get the idea. Where you see a simple exercise, your dog sees a string of things all linked together somehow that results in him getting a treat. The more observant the dog is, the more dots he connects. (For the geeks, in trainerspeak, this is called associative learning.)

Our teaching job then must continue past the establishment of the basic exercise we see and enter into our dogs’ world so we can help her identify which specific dots in the long string are actually the ones that produce the reward (in trainerspeak: shaping). If we don’t do that, we then are leaving the dog to think that possibly ALL those dots are somehow connected to the result. Which means they ALL need to be present for her to produce the behavior we want.

So the next time you work your Sit exercise, if even ONE of those dots is not present, your dog may not Sit. Or he may hesitate. Or he may jump at the treat. And you will snatch the treat away. Or say “No, SIT” in a lower, irritated voice. Or push his butt down to “help” him. Now, not only has at least one dot disappeared, all these new dots have appeared! Are they connected to getting the FOOD or not?

It’s pretty easy to see how quickly this could get confusing for both parties. The break in communication and understanding can completely undermine the teaching process to the point where POGs literally throw up their hands and declare their dogs stupid, unable to listen, incapable of learning. Meanwhile, the dogs keep waiting for a clear message that never comes, and may well end up deciding we are not worth listening to.

We don’t realize what has actually happened — that something changed, the dog noticed, and he now isn’t sure what to do.

Dogs are very detail-oriented (good survival skill!), so they tend to notice way more things than we do. If we are aware of this, the learning process smoothes out substantially. POGs realize they need to reconnect the dots repeatedly as they expand their exercises, say moving to a different room, or a noisier place, or weaning off treats. It’s helpful to remember the less dots you remove at once, the easier it is to reconnect. One dot at a time is best. You are telling your dog, “Yes, I know I changed something again, but this is still the way you get the good stuff!”

Trainers call this proofing, I guess to mean they are proving the dog really knows the exercise. Connecting the dots makes more sense to me.

Continue the teaching by backing up a bit

Think back to a time when you were taught a new task. Did you get confused if a new step is added? Did you struggle if the task was done under different conditions, say noisier or with interruptions? How do you adjust — go back to basics by rereading the directions, listening again to the instructor, watching the video? Take a deep breath to calm and focus yourself? Remove the new step, reestablish the basic task, then attempt the new step again?

Dogs need the same help. So, the next time you start practicing with your dog, if she hesitates, does something else, looks at you with that confused Scooby-Doo face, simply back up in your exercise. Go back to the step she can do with enthusiasm and confidence. Repeat a few times then try your next step again.

If you still get hesitation/confusion, then you probably added/subtracted way too many dots at once without realizing it. Go back to the start and repeat the basic task just the way you first taught it. You may only need one or two repeats to reconnect the dots (watch for that little doggie light bulb to come on!). Once that happens, continue on to the next level.

If your dog got nervous/hyper because of the confusion, take an extra moment or two — slowly walk her off, take a few deep breaths, and quietly wait for her to relax a bit. Then go back to the basic task, etc. (If you can’t read your dog well enough to see all this, then it’s time to go back to basics for you — learn some more dog body language. A place to start: I’ve Never Had a Dog Like This! [https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07RJV89YR ] has a sidebar in it that points out some important stuff about body language that will help you assess quickly.)

Hope this post connected some dots for you!