Almost every person who calls me will say the following. “I know my dog can learn fast, I taught him to sit for his meals after only a couple of days. Now, he sits as soon as I pick up his bowl”. Let’s have a look at this scenario and understand why our dogs learn this skill so quickly and how you can apply mealtime manners learning pace to other skills.
There are three reasons our dogs learn mealtime manners fast, 1) training is consistent 2) location stays the same 3) massive reward.
Consistency. Teaching mealtime manners usually occurs at mealtimes, this means that practice will happen at least once every single day or up to three times every day for years. The signals are also often consistent, you will follow the same routine every time you feed your dog and he will be able to predict with 100% accuracy what behaviour will get him access to the food and in what order your routine is practised in.
Location. Feeding your dog in the same location helps remind your dog of what you practised the day before. Dogs do not generalise well, what they learn in one location they will not be able to replicate in another. You can test this out, next time you get the chance take your dogs’ food bowl to the park (with no other dogs around) and follow the same mealtime routine you have at home. The majority of dogs will not be able to perform the behaviour as well as they do at home. However, you will find after a few successful repetitions he will learn the skill just as well as he has at home.
Massive reward. Dogs learn mealtime manners so well because they hit the ‘jackpot’ of food every time. It’s worth their while. However, it’s not healthy to reward every behaviour with a full meal, you would end up with a candidate for The Biggest Loser. Usually, a dogs’ quality of response is in direct relation to the quality of the reward. So, use a ‘jackpot’ to reward the best behaviours such as a speedy recall or fast response sit.
With these three things in mind, consistency, location and massive reward how many are present in most peoples’ recall (or other) training with their dog? Most people practice recall with different words and hand signals each time, perhaps it is only practised every couple of days or weeks. Recall is also expected to be performed with the same response in all locations, if your dog has learned to recall in your back yard they will not be able to immediately transfer recall to the park. Most people will, at best take a couple of dry dog treats to the park, not such a big reward when there are so many other things competing for a dogs’ attention.
To teach your dog a skill quickly and effectively apply mealtime manners training to other skills. Consistency, training every single day in the same predictable manner with the same hand signals and verbal cues. Location, work up slowly to new areas and new distractions by doing lots of easy practice drills, and massive reward, don’t hold back the best meaty, fresh food and love when your dog does something wonderful.