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Dog Tales

Concept versus context, when it comes to dogs

Every year, I work with hundreds of people and their dogs. When I ask them what behaviors their dogs know, they proudly list them: Sit, down, paw, the other paw, stay and no. And just for the record, no is not a behavior.

Next I’ll ask them to show me the behaviors and here is what happens: They’ll walk into the kitchen and jiggle the cookie jar, the dog sits. They’ll get out the food bowl as if they are going to feed the dog, and the dog sits. Or they’ll get one treat, and have the dog run through their repertoire of behaviors, sit melts into paw, melts into the other paw, melts into down. If you are reading this, proudly and excitedly saying to yourself, “That’s what my dog does!” you should know that these are great examples of context learning.

Here’s the limitation of context learning, in these particular contexts your dog knows to sit for cookies, sit for his meal or to perform all behaviors for a treat. Unfortunately, if the context isn’t right, the dog won’t know what you are asking him and you may find yourself incorrectly assuming he’s being resentful or dominant.

If you’ve hired me because you have a naughty doggie, we need to change the focus from context learning to concept learning. Here’s the difference: We want your dog to sit anywhere, anytime regardless of what you are doing. For example and a brief instruction on how to accomplish concept learning, Stretch out on your couch, have the food treat in your pocket, no cheating by having it in your hand, now ask Rover to sit. Treat him if he does. Face a wall and ask Rover to lay down, again no cheating, have the food treat in your pocket. When out for your daily walk, ask Rover to sit next to you, not in front of you. Do you get the idea?

Concept learning will serve you better than context learning. If you are experiencing behavioral issues with your dog, anywhere from jumping on people to being leash reactive, if he’s concept-trained, his basic behaviors will be generalized, meaning he understands the concept of sitting when cued to do so, everywhere and anywhere. Context-trained, or left to his own devices, chances are he’ll make the wrong behavior choice.

Once your dog understands a hand signal to sit, you need to begin the generalization process. Ask your dog for the sit behavior, using your hand signal by placing your body in at least 25 different positions. Brush your teeth, signal the sit. While making coffee, signal the sit, while driving, signal the sit — OK, not while driving, wait until you are at a stop light. Sit on the floor, signal the sit, lay on the couch, signal the sit. Be as creative as possible.

Practice makes perfect. Your dog will have fun learning the concept of all his behaviors and you will glow with pride when your dog understands them in all situations.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 20 years. She offers private lessons, group classes in Rindge and Swanzey, board and train as well as day training services. She lives in Keene with her partner, Amy Willey. They share their home with five dogs and three daughters. For more information, see www.everythingdognh.com.

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