“He knows the behavior; he just refuses to do it!”
If you find yourself up against this wall in training, make sure you can answer two questions for your dog: ‘what?’ and ‘why?’.
What is it, exactly, that you want me to do?
Why should I?
The second question of one motivation. It’s uber-important; but today, we’re going to talk about the first. So, let’s say you’ve been working on ‘sit-stay’ with your dog. You can walk to the other end of your living room and he’ll hold a stay for 30 seconds. Bravo! But then the doorbell rings. You decide to put your dog in a sit-stay and open the door. The second it opens (if not sooner), he breaks his stay.
The reason for this is simple: being the masterful discriminators that they are, dogs don’t generalize well. They are constantly internalizing (even the most nuanced) changes in the environment. So, from the dog’s perspective, holding a stay while you walk across the room and stand still is not the same behavior as holding a stay after the doorbell rings and you have opened the door (both of which are antecedents with strong predictive power).
So, how do we build solid behaviors that don’t fall apart with contextual changes? We proof them. We practice them in as many different situations as possible, gradually increasing distance, duration and distractions. And we set the dog up to succeed by increasing the level of difficulty one parameter at a time.
Here’s the result of proofing a sit-stay by adding the distraction of trainer movement. It is very prudent for a trainer to wait until a dog is this fluent in a controlled environment before proofing stay in new places.