It always amazes me when someone says “Dogs are so stupid.” Usually they are referring to a particular dog’s inability to follow their instructions or commands for something the human thinks should be relatively simple. Yet we use dogs to perform many complicated functions in human society from being service and guide dogs for the blind and disabled to performing search and rescue missions to assisting in law enforcement and livestock management. It seems that even though our dogs may be simple minded creatures by our human standards, they are capable of remarkably complex tasks.
So is it a question of our dogs’ ability to perform these complex tasks or our ability to teach them how to perform them? Noted animal trainer Bob Bailey has said that an animal can be trained to do anything of which it is physically capable. The dog world is filled with examples that would support Bailey’s statement. The question isn’t IF our dogs can do something so much as HOW do we communicate and teach them to do it.
Big tasks, small pieces
If someone asked me to design the electrical wiring for a new home, I could probably do it. It’s a complex task but I could break it down and learn each of the components and how to fit them together. The same is true when we teach our dogs something new. To a human, asking your dog to sit and wait while you get something from the car may seem like a simple task to a human but it might be complex for your dog to understand.
Think about it. When I bring a new dog home with me, one of the first things I need to be able to do is keep an eye on it so it doesn’t get into trouble before it learns the “house rules.” Basically, I teach my new dog to follow me everywhere. Even after I teach her to “sit”, asking her to “stay” might be a little strange because I have always asked her to follow me around before that. I’m changing the game and I need to make sure she understands the rules.
I’ve found that the best way to teach my dogs is in small pieces. Whether it’s teaching a complex chained behaviour like running to the end of a dog walk, stopping, and waiting until released or a behaviour like “stay” which has several criteria for where, when, how, and how long to “stay”, I find that teaching each piece separately is less stressful for my dogs and generally results in faster and more long-lasting learning.
The human brain has a tremendous capacity for storing patterns and information. Because of the size and development of their brains, dogs do not share our easy facility with storing and remembering the complex patterns necessary for learning and performing behaviours. For example, if you are asked to sit down, you seem to automatically identify an appropriate place to sit, engage the muscles necessary, and perform the posture when asked. So it is often very easy for us to think of a behaviour like “sitting” as one simple task while our dogs may percieve it as something more complicated.
Dogs can be very specific creatures. If I teach my puppy to “sit” while we are in the kitchen, she may look at me like I’m crazy if I ask her to “sit” in the living room later on. The reason is that she has not generalized the concept of “sit” to understand that she should do it in ANY environment and not just the kitchen where she was taught. I have to teach WHERE to sit in addition to WHAT sit is. I may even need to teach her specifically HOW to sit if I want her to sit square or directly in front of me. So it is important that I split up what I’m asking my dog to do and not just ask for everything at once.
Lumping is a very human trait. Because of our enlarged cerebral cortex, we tend to group actions into larger patterns and then execute them as one large action. It can be easy for us to misunderstand our dog’s inability to do the same thing since it comes so easily to us. To humans, dogs can sometimes seem ridiculously literal and nitpicky when it comes to behaviours. Why can’t they just do what we ASK already?
All that “noise”
Even if I’m a clever enough dog trainer to understand that I need to break things down into manageable pieces when teaching my dog, I can still fall victim to another very human habit. Multi-tasking. If I’m training my dog, I may be helping them with a gesture of my hand to give me the behaviour I want. But I may also be encouraging them with verbal praise. I might also be moving around to get to a more comfortable position for me to work. I might have to move a leash or get more treats or even answer the phone. What is my dog supposed to make of all that activity? Which, if any, of those human behaviours have anything to do with what they are supposed to be learning?
Keeping things simple for our dogs while they are learning is not just a matter of teaching small pieces of behaviours that they can understand. It also means keeping the distractions to a minimum so they don’t have to sort through a barrage of sights and sounds to figure out what we are looking for! It can be a struggle to keep our human multi-tasking habits out of the way when teaching our dogs.
Just as the tallest pyramid is built of many smaller blocks of stone, our dogs behaviours are built of individual lessons we teach them. And just like those blocks at the base of the pyramid, many times we can build new and different behaviours on that simple foundation if we have taken the time to teach those lessons well. In my experience, teaching a dog is not about being clever. It is about patience and being sophisticated enough to keep things simple in both how and what we teach our dog.
When you train your dog, do your break things down for them? Do you look at each part of a behaviour and help them understand what you are asking for? When you train with them, do you keep the environment free from distractions? Do you keep quiet and not cheerlead and fuss around your dog while you are training? Are you focused on the training and not trying to watch something on the stove or talk to a friend while you are working?
Keeping things simple may not be as simple as it sounds. Our human tendencies and habits can seem much more complex to our dogs than they do to us. It will take effort and focus to keep ourselves still enough and simple enough to be the best teachers for our dogs. Most of all, we will need to be patient with the process and take the time we need to learn good habits ourselves and to think through the best ways to teach our dogs.
Leonardo da Vinci once said that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Mies Van Der Rohe put it more succinctly – “Less is more.”
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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