dog lying on a blanket
Practicing down on a mat.

We often think of dog training as a progression: first teach sit, then down, then stay. Many classes and manners of instruction are set up this way, my own included. Class names also tend to reinforce this progression mentality: Basic Manners, Intermediate Manners, Advanced Manners.

There is some truth to this perception, of course. By starting training with simple behaviors that make use of dogs’ natural behavior patterns, and therefore are easy for our dogs to learn, we help them learn how to learn and plant the seeds for success in more advanced training down the road.

However, having once learned a behavior is not a guarantee that your dog will continue to know and perform the behavior forever. Dogs, like people, respond to incentives, and they also form habits. If the incentive to perform a certain behavior is removed, the behavior is likely to fade. We use this to our advantage when we work to discourage undesirable behaviors like jumping up on people and counter surfing.

It becomes a disadvantage when we decide not to bother reinforcing a once-learned behavior, such as sitting for food or polite leash walking. With no reinforcement for these learned behaviors, over time our dogs (cats, guinea pigs, etc.) will revert to the behavior that has the most ingrained reinforcement (sticking their head in the bowl as soon as it is in reach) or fits natural reactions (pulling against the pressure of the leash).

Often, the behaviors that fade are those not part of the daily routine. However, when the realization that your dog no longer responds to “_________” hits home, the human reaction is often frustration and anger. I respond the same way when I can no longer easily perform some task I used to do years ago; it is a natural reaction.

Ok, looks like we have a little reviewing to do! #practicetime #dogs

Posted by Next Best Pet on Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Natural or not, it is not fair to take whatever frustrations we feel out on our dogs, who, after all, are just responding in accordance with the incentives in their world. Nor should we blame our training methods for failing to permanently ingrain a behavior for which we subsequently removed the incentives. There is no real cause to blame anyone: life happens.

The good news is that retraining a behavior when no major trauma or punishment has occurred, is fairly straightforward and usually easier than teaching that behavior the first time.

So, the next time your dog, who used to know all about polite greetings, is jumping on your friends like a maniac, take a deep breath, bite back your shout of frustration, and go back to the beginning.

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