When I meet a client for the first time one of the most common things I hear when a dog doesn't perform up to the owner's expectations is, "But he knows it!". This could be in reference to walking on leash politely, sit-stay, leave it or any other behavior we're asking for.
I understand how frustrating it can be for pet parents when they've practiced over and over in their living room, but their dog can't perform the same behavior in a new space. However, my response to them is always the same. Your dog doesn't actually know it.
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret about how dogs learn. They don't generalize well. According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary to generalize is to apply (something specific, such as a theory or rule) to larger group. In other words, your dog doesn't know he can perform the same behavior in a variety of environments until we show him he can!
In order to help your dog generalize a behavior you need to do the following things:
1) Increase your criteria constantly. You may start with your dog sitting directly in front of you with no distractions, but you need to move towards your dog sitting several feet from you while a ball bounces by. There are lots of small incremental changes you can make to your criteria between point A and point B. You don't have to rush or push your dog too far.
2) Introduce the behavior in many different environments. Begin by teaching a behavior in a low distraction environment like your living room. Once your dog has it down, move out to your front yard. Then ask for the behavior while on a walk. Take your dog to new places and practice the behavior in each one.
A few tips for daily training and generalization:
1) Make sure that your dog's paycheck is equal to the amount of work you're asking for. You may be able to use plain kibble in your house, but the more distracting an environment is the higher value your food should be. When I train outdoors I use yummy training treats. When I bring my dog's out to the farmers market, I have hot dogs or string cheese.
2) Keep training sessions short. Remember being in school and laying your head on the desk by the end of the day? Your dog, like you, will learn better in many short training sessions versus one long session.
3) Lower your criteria in new environments. Expect that Fido won't be able to hold a 30 second sit while new people are walking past on Church Street. Instead ask for a nice calm 5 second sit, and reward generously. Slowly increase your criteria up to that great 30 second sit over the course of several outings.
4) Focus and impulse control are key. If your dog can't focus on you with distractions, you're doing to have difficulty helping her to generalize behaviors to new environments. Before working on anything else, practice essential focus and impulse control skills, like eye contact and leave it.
Your dog may not know it yet, but with consistence and practice they will!
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.