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?  And if your dog knows a behavior in a familiar environment, does it logically follow that he will always know that behavior, even in an unusual situation or environment?

Many trainers would say yes because they routinely assess what their dogs “know” without consideration for context. They reason that a 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:

One afternoon, your doorbell rings unexpectedly. You open the door to find a police officer who explains that there has been a car accident and he believes that your child might have been in the car. You are filled with fear.

The officer needs specific information about your child – simple things like her height, weight, hair color, and what she was wearing.  It is quite likely that you will struggle to answer these simple questions without great effort. Fear severely impacts our ability to recall information that under more normal circumstances could be given with no effort at all. And the more urgent it is that we recall the information quickly, the more difficult it will be to do so. This is because fear has changed the context.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit.  Instead of receiving bad news, 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, in fact.  You are overwhelmed with excitement!  All you need to do is fill out some forms with basic identifying information.

Once again, under normal circumstances, you could answer these simple questions very easily because you know the information well and you have had a lot of practice giving your social security number, date of birth, and address.  But when your brain is spinning with excitement, 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 seem impossible.

And what if the questions required even more concentration and thought to answer? If the police officer asked you to look at several photos of similar shoes, could you tell the officers which ones belonged to your child?

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.

When you take your dog to a new training building or trial setting, he must process all of the information around him, and then, 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 from 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, and we are frustrated when our dogs do not rise to the occasion because we believe they know what we want. Even when our dogs are excited or stressed, and even under truly novel or overwhelming circumstances, we expect them 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 focused, could you provide the information requested by the lottery?   Is it really about 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.