What does your dog know?
Does your dog know simple behaviors like sit and Down? Does your dog know more complex behaviors like formal hand signals or scent articles? If your dog knows a behavior in a familiar environment, does it logically follow that they always know that behavior, even when they are in a more unusual situation or environment?
Trainers routinely assess what their dogs “know” without consideration for context. They reason that the dog either knows a behavior or does not know it, and therefore failure to perform a known behavior is a conscious choice. While this black and white approach certainly simplifies training decisions, it ignores the fact that what one knows is really contextual. To make this more clear, let’s consider a human example.
Let’s say your doorbell rings unexpectedly and you open the door to find a police officer standing there. There has been a car accident and they believe that your child might have been in the car. The officer needs specific information about your child like date of birth, height, weight, etc. You are filled with fear.
At that moment, it is quite likely that you will struggle to answer these simple questions without great effort, because fear changes the context of what one “knows.” Fear severely impacts our ability to recall information that under more normal circumstances would be given with no effort at all. The more urgent it is that we recall the information quickly, the more difficult it will be to do so.
Now let’s change the scenario a bit. Instead of a knock on the door that makes you fearful, let’s say you just received a visit from the state lottery. You have just won 10 million dollars! You are not afraid; quite the opposite! You are overwhelmed with excitement! All you need to do is fill out some forms and provide basic identifying information.
Once again, under normal circumstances, you could answer their simple questions very easily because you know the information well and you have a lot of practice giving your social security number, street address, etc. But when your brain is spinning with excitement, then all bets about what you really “know” are off. Suddenly you will struggle to recall the simplest of things and focusing on the mundane will appear impossible.
And what if the questions required even more concentration and thought to answer? If the police officer asked you to look at photos of similar shoes, could you tell the officers which ones belonged to your child? Exactly what time he left the house? What he was wearing?
If you were asked how you wanted your lottery winnings; all at once, monthly payouts, or a lifetime annuity, could you adequately concentrate on those decisions at that moment?
Probably not. At that moment, you probably can’t even remember what an annuity is, let alone if you want one.
Most of us don’t think much about the relative nature of knowledge until your perpetually singing five year old child is struck mute when asked to perform for your holiday guests. Is your child obstinate, spiteful, or simply overwhelmed with social pressure? Most of us would sympathize with the child’s plight, even if we felt disappointment or frustration at the child’s inability to perform, because we understand. We are sympathetic because we’ve been there. We know how it feels to be afraid.
When you take your dog to a new training building or trial setting, he must process all of the information around him, and while he is busy with his fear or excitement he must also attempt to perform as if he were in his own backyard.
Handlers often expect instant responsiveness and attention in their performance dogs once a behavior is known. We feel confident about what our dogs know because we have seen them perform correctly many times before. We are frustrated when our dogs do not rise to the occasion because we believe they know what we want, at least under pristine conditions, and we believe that if they just tried harder then the failures would go away. Even when excited or stressed, and even under truly novel or overwhelming circumstances, we expect our dogs to recall their training.
“If he just tried harder.” “If he just focused.” “If he cared more about pleasing me and not himself.” “He knows this!” “He’s blowing me off!” “He’s doing this to get back at me!” “If he thinks he can get away with that he’s got another thing coming!”
If you just tried harder, could you recall the information that the police officer requested, instantly and correctly? If you just tried harder, could you provide the information requested by the Lottery? If your child loved you more, could she sing for your dinner guests?
Is it really about trying harder, or how much your child loves you, or who might be getting the upper hand? Or is it about what we know at any given moment?
Give your dog the benefit of the doubt. Because what you think your dog knows, and what your dog really knows, may not be the same thing at all.
SHAMELESS MARKETING AND BRAGS
I have THREE pieces of news!
Deb Jones and I wrote a book called Dog Sports Skills Book 2: Motivation. You probably know that. But did you know that we were just nominated for behavior and training book of the year by the Dog Writer’s of America? Yep, and we’re really excited about it! Last year our first book in the Dog Sports Skills Series (Building Engagement and Relationship) WON that category, so we are hopeful for a repeat of that honor. Wish us luck! You can purchase the book through my website: www.thedogathlete.com
The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is hosting our first Annual Conference in Colmar, PA from May 29th to June 1st, 2015; 3.5 days of obedience with SIX exceptional Fenzi academy instructors! All of the working spots filled with “Super users” of the Fenzi Academy the first day that registration opened but there are auditing spots available, and for $219 the learning opportunity is truly unbeatable. To learn more and register before the conference fills, please follow this link: http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/component/content/article/8-fdsa/2436-ferretpalooza
and…last but not least…today is the last day of the term to register for a class at the academy. If you’d like to join us, we have 26 classes to consider. Class has already been in session for two weeks so you’ll be playing catchup. You’ll have access to instructor’s materials for one year. Here’s the link to the schedule: http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/schedule-and-syllabus