Learning that lasts

by Imogen Lloyd and Justine Harding // September 2017

Learning that lasts

Life-proof your dog’s learning so he can reliably respond to you wherever you are!

When people come to our training classes they’re sometimes confused why their dogs appear to suddenly ‘forget’ simple commands like ‘sit’. “He does it beautifully at home,” they assure us. And we are confident that they do... so why can’t the dog seem to do what they are asked in class?

Our dogs learn through making associations between events that happen close together in time and place. So, when we teach a sit they not only link sitting with a treat, but they will also be associating the behaviour with that specific context. For instance, if you tend to train in the kitchen, your dog may think that what he learns only applies in the kitchen. He may also link what he’s learning to your body position, your clothing, other events in the day and to specific sounds and smells.


When you ask for the same behaviour in a completely new environment, your dog may not have applied what he has learned to this new situation. For example, he may think that ‘sit’ only means sit when on carpet not on concrete; or when you ask for a sit your dog only responds when you are standing, not when you are sitting. Your dog is not “forgetful” or “stubborn”, but a master of picking up a wide variety of subtle cues from his environment and he hasn’t yet learned which ones are the key ones and which apply to many settings.  

Another reason why your dog might struggle to repeat a behaviour he seems to know in a training class is because a new environment can be very distracting. It is hard to pay attention when there lots of exciting new things to look at or if you are feeling a bit worried and need to check out if you are safe.  

So, if you ask your dog to do something that you think he knows, and he looks at you blankly or fails to tune in, here’s what to do:

  1. Is he able to pay attention to you? If not, you may need to take him to a quieter, calmer environment where he can relax and listen to you. It may also help to use a more exciting reward.
  2. Have you ever practised the behaviour you are asking him for in this environment? If not, you may need to go over the basics so your dog understands what you want. Go back to the very first steps you used to teach the behaviour, for example, luring (following a treat) into the right position, such as a sit. When your dog is successfully doing the behaviour like this, you can once again reduce the level of help you need to give him. For example, ask for the behaviour with just a hand signal (no treat in your hand) and then reward once he does the behaviour.
  3. Practise all the behaviours you need your dog to learn in a variety of situations, on different surfaces, indoors and outdoors, with the cues eg ‘sit’ being given by different people so he learns that the same behaviour applies, wherever he is asked to do it and by whoever.
  4. Build up the robustness of your dog’s learning by practising in situations with gradually increasing levels of distractions. Start in quiet calm environments and build up to busier places with people, animals, traffic etc so he learns to be able to focus in all sorts of different places.

By understanding how your dog learns, you can help him do what you want easily, reducing the frustration for you both.

For more helpful tips and tricks, why not join one of our classes? 

Visit our page to fill out an enquiry form, or email us at eastangliadogschool@dogstrust.org.uk, or call us on 07388 377371