Training Dogs And Humans For A More Enjoyable Life Together

By Susan Smith, East Valley Dog Training

Answers to questions are based on the information provided. It’s always a good idea to have your pet thoroughly examined by a veterinarian when having behavior problems. Although I can give general information and management suggestions on serious behavior problems such as aggression, issues such as these can be a very serious problem and a certified dog trainer should be consulted.

My wife and I have a two year old terrier mix that we adopted a couple months ago. She just finished beginner training and did OK. Problem is she’s having trouble doing what she learned in the class since, without consistent treats and even then she loses interest.

Unfortunately, this is very common with group classes. Group classes offer a lot of advantages, but there are also built-in disadvantages. For all animals, there are four stages of learning a new behavior – acquisition, fluency, generalization, and maintenance. Acquisition is when the animal learns what you’re trying to teach him; i.e., the word “sit” means put my butt on the ground, and if I do that, I’ll probably get a treat. Fluency comes with practice, and is a combination of speed and accuracy; so for a behavior such as “sit,” excellent fluency might mean an

agile dog such as a Border Collie can do 30 sits in 40 seconds, whereas a slower dog such as a St. Bernard might do 30 sits in 120 seconds. Generalization means the dog understands the cue under a variety of different circumstances; location, time of day, handler, handler position, etc. Behaviors dogs learn are a skill and, as with all skills, they need to be maintained over time or the animal will lose fluency.

In group classes you are primarily working in the acquisition phase and barely touching on fluency. What this means is that the dog will learn the behavior in the classroom, but when you take him to your home or another location, he hasn’t generalized the behavior and so doesn’t understand that it’s the same as when in the classroom.

Building on this is the fact that the dog’s human is also learning a new skill and is also still in the acquisition stage. The human has learned a very specific way to get the behavior from his dog (which usually includes a food lure), so when he goes to another location and things don’t go the way they did in the classroom, it starts to fall apart for both the dog and the human.

Again, the average group class addresses acquisition and touches on fluency, and this is fine because you need these skills. However, you don’t get the skills you need to fade out the treats and get reliable behavior in situations other than the classroom.

I would talk to the trainer and see if they do advanced classes. If they do, find out what they focus on; i.e., do they focus on fading treats, generalization, and advanced fluency? If so, this will help both you and your dog. Alternatively, you might hire a private trainer for one or two sessions and focus in on the areas you need help with.

If you have questions for the trainer, please send them to:

Susan Smith, CDBC, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer in San Tan Valley, AZ, specializing in pet dog training as well as cat and parrot training—from obedience behaviors to serious problems such as aggression. She can be contacted at:

Sue is also the owner of Raising Canine, LLC which provides professional education to animal trainers.