To make up for our total ignorance of what it takes to train a dog, especially a troubled adolescent, we’ve done A LOT of reading since Spencer’s arrival. One point that comes up over and over is that dogs don’t generalize well. They learn in a very context-specific way, and you then have to repeat the training over and over in different circumstances until the lightbulb goes off that “Oh! You want me to act like this everywhere and with everyone!”
We had a great illustration of this recently.
We were terribly proud of ourselves when very early in our attempts at training, Spencer responded to the command “panier” (basket). When requested, he would run to his crate and lay down. However, we didn’t use it very often just because the need didn’t arise. When he started to get nervous about strangers in the house, the trainer told us that getting him to go to and stay in his crate was a key tool in managing the situation. So we decided to get more serious about it.
Only it had stopped working. Spencer would run right up to his cage on command, but nothing we could do could persuade him to go inside. We thought it might have to do with two recent unfortunate incidents: 1) At some point in the near past, he had caught his identification medallion on the bars of the cage and had clearly had to pull violently to get himself free (so he must have thought we had tied him up in the cage). 2) And then another time, one of his paws had slid between some of the horizontal bars while he was snoozing; we called him, and when he stood up, he hurt his paw, yelped and panicked when he couldn’t get free right away.
We figured he would need time to get over these traumas, so we decided to be patient and use a technique called “shaping” where you reward the dog for ever closer approximations to the desired behavior. After months of doing this, we had gotten to the point where 3/4 of the dog would go in the cage, but no more.
So along comes Christmas, we move the furniture a bit to make room for the Christmas tree, and Spencer suddenly starts laying down in his cage on command.
And that’s when the penny dropped.
When we first taught him this trick, he was sleeping in his canvas crate, which has the opening on the end. Then he had his surgeries and we took his bed out of the crate, because he couldn’t fit in there with the cone. When the trainer recommended making this command a priority, we bought a cage big enough to accommodate the cone. Even better, it has two doors, one on the end and one on the side. It was much easier for Spencer to manoeuvre in the cage through the opening on the side, so we arranged his cage parallel to the wall.
Part of the technique of teaching a dog to go to his crate on command is to throw treats in and later to hide them in there before you give the command. But with the door on the side, Spencer didn’t need to get all the way into the cage in order to fetch any treats therein. And, in any case, by the time he had turned around in there, he was halfway out again.
But when we put the Christmas tree up, we turned the cage so it was perpendicular to the wall and started using the door on the end. Presto! Spencer immediately started going into the cage and laying down on command…now that the conditions were exactly like those under which he had learned the command in the first place!