In this article, I’d like to talk a bit about context—in other words, how how dogs perceive information.
At our company, we do a lot of boot camps. In these camps, both local people from here in Utah or people from out of state bring their dogs to us, and we train the dog and send it home. When I started doing these boot camps, I didn’t understand the concept of context deeply enough to realize that I needed to explain it to everyone. That was a young rookie mistake! So I would train the dog, bring it back to the owners, and tell them: “Here’s how you get it to be obedient. If he isn’t, then make sure you’re doing all these things.”
Owners were always surprised by these specifics. They thought that all they would need to do is say “sit” or “come” and their dog would do it automatically. I had to explain that their dog wasn’t a machine. Just because a dog understands a command in training doesn’t mean that he will automatically obey it for his owner without any kind of practice.
During one of the first bootcamps I did, I seriously annoyed an owner. This was probably nine or ten years ago. I trained a dog for a woman in her twenties who lived at home with her dad, brought the dog back home and showed her how to do all of the things we had practiced. The next day her dad called me and said “The dog isn’t listening to me.” I had to explain that since he hadn’t been present for the go-home session, he hadn’t learned how to handle the dog. His response? “What do you mean, you need to show me how to do things? The dog’s supposed to be trained, he’s supposed to listen!” I realized right then that I had screwed up. Not in the training—the dog was well-trained—but in not explaining context to his owners.
Here’s an example: if you give me a TV remote, I can change the channel by hitting a button. Furthermore, you can give that remote to any other person on Earth, and if they hit that button it will do the exact same thing. That remote is a machine. It has no motives, no emotions, and no agenda. A lot of people think that dogs are like that. They believe that if they send their dog away to be trained, he will come back perfect. But living, breathing creatures don’t work that way! Just because a dog is trained in one context doesn’t mean that he’s trained in the other.
Clients frequently call us and say “I adopted this dog from a shelter, and they swore to us that he was house trained. But he’s peed in the house, and he’s chewing things up. He’s not house trained!” I’ll often tell them that the dog might have been house trained—but in a different house, where he knew the schedule and where to find the back door. Just because he was house trained in one context doesn’t mean he will be house trained in your context.
Every dog can have a foundation in house training, obedience training, protection training, or agility training. But just because you hand that leash to the next person, the dog wont automatically recognize the same commands in a new context. He may not understand that “down” still means “put your elbows on the ground.” He must understand how to work through that new context. We try to explain this every time we send dogs home from boot camp.
These days, we’re a lot more careful than I used to be. Before we ever sell a boot camp to anyone, we tell them that their dog will still try to test them even after he comes home trained. He will continue to try to get around the rules and figure out how to be disobedient. Dogs are just like water: they seek the path of least resistance. (We’re the same! We want to find the easiest way to do something, and we act on our impulses when we feel like it.) Now, we make an effort to communicate that owners have to undergo a kind of “training” as well. They need to understand how to drive and manage their dog’s training.
I often use the example of a client in the south of Spain who had a Ferrari. (I’ve never been a car guy, but it was still really impressive.) Every night when I went out to dinner with these clients, they would tell me, “Why don’t you take the Ferrari?” Of course, I was reluctant to drive this $300,000 car! But finally, on the last night, I relented. I had driven a hundred cars at this point, but this experience was totally different: you shifted on the steering wheel, the ignition was configured differently, and every time you touched the gas you’d immediately be pushing 100 miles per hour. While I had driven a lot of cars, this car was put together in a totally unfamiliar way. The Ferrari was a new context. Just knowing how to drive a car certainly didn’t mean that I could drive a Ferrari well!
In the end, I was able to drive the Ferrari. I even got it going a hundred miles an hour down those winding Spanish roads. But while I was able to get it going, I certainly didn’t access everything that car had, because I didn’t have the benefit of repetition. Your dog is the same: you won’t be able to access all of his training right away. I might be able to off-leash heel your dog through a crowd of distractions, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do so right away. You will need to put in the work to get up to speed with your dog.
This concept can apply in a lot of situations. Is your dog obedient until you take him to the park? That’s a context change. Is he well-behaved until friends come over? Also a context change. Does he obey you but not your spouse? Yet another context change. When the context changes, dogs don’t immediately understand how to apply everything they have learned. That’s why a big part of the training process is getting repetitions as possible. In doing so, the dog’s behavior becomes less based on context. The dog is able to perform anywhere he goes, and not just in the contexts he is familiar with.
Think about these concepts in relation to your dog training. What kinds of contextual elements need to change in order for your dog to take the things he understands in one place and begin to understand them everywhere?