The other day, a dog trainer friend of mine and I decided to train together at a public field at the base of a hiking trail in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills. I brought a client dog, a young Poodle, to work on her recall skills in a new location, and my friend brought her personal dog because they are working toward the goal of competing in a dog sport. She wanted to practice heeling and retrieval exercises in a new environment with new distractions.
We trainers make a point of taking our practice sessions on the road frequently, a training in multiple and varied locations are an important part of teaching a dog to generalize behaviors. Practicing in new places helps a dog become fluent in our training language and expectations.
For example, if you only ever work on your recall or “come when called” routine in your dog training class and backyard, there is a very good chance that, no matter how good your dog performs in those two locations, your dog will not come when called when you take him to the park. This is because dogs don’t generalize well, or, to put a positive spin on it, dogs are excellent fine discriminators and notice every nuance of a scenario. They are attuned to every variance in every detail of a routine, location, tone of voice, scents, ground substrate, population/crowd differences, and even the ambient soundscape will make a situation new and different to a dog. And therefore, every nuance is a potential distraction to master in training.
By the way, the above is something I would love for you to keep in mind when you get frustrated with your dog for not “listening” to you when you are sure your dog “knows better.” Chances are he doesn’t. It’s more likely you have not practiced your exercises in enough novel locations of gradually increasing distracting environments for your dog to be fluent and well behaved across the board.
So, there we were, training away, getting in our reps while simultaneously working toward generalization with our canine charges. Both of our dogs were engaged, on-leash or long line, and under control. The field we were in was about the size of a football field and surrounded by a lush ivy and redwood tree border on three sides. At the bottom of the field was the parking lot. We’d brought four traffic cones with us to use as markers for heeling (making turns) and to use to teach a few other fun exercises where the dogs go around the cone. In all, we probably were using about a 40 square foot corner of the field, near the front, but still about 100 feet from the parking lot.
As I mentioned, we wanted to work on distractions, but soft ones, at a short distance — think middle school level distractions, not college level work. If we’d wanted that, we would have gone to a dog park or the coastline. Regardless, we sure got a distraction. More than we bargained for.
A woman pulls up and parks in the lot and proceeds to just open her car door and lets loose two large, exuberant dogs, a tall, black Lab mix and an adolescent Bernese Mountain dog. The dogs jump out of the car and immediately come flying toward us. The woman is calling them to no avail. She stays near her car, about 100 feet away, remember, and just kind of half-heartedly shouts the dogs’ names occasionally. She doesn’t change her tone of voice and does nothing to close the distance. She makes no attempt to come and retrieve her dogs, who are ignoring her requests and instead have descended upon us like flies on honey. It is immediately clear to me that these dogs have not generalized their recall lessons, that is if they even knew how to come when called at all.
While these dogs were not particularly aggressive, they weren’t exactly being socially correct either. Both were overly aroused, to the point of the adult Lab-like dog being very stiff as he pushed right into my colleague and her dog’s immediate space. The Berner pup hopped around out of reach, kind of tempting and teasing my pup to come play, when it should have been clear, to the their human at least, that we weren’t there to play.
On our end, we still had our dogs under control. I was actually still trying to train my adolescent Poodle, turning lemons into lemonade, attempting to use the above grade-level distraction as a teaching moment. My friend’s dog is not aggressive, but she is an adult female dog who will reprimand a mannerless mutt for shoving its nose in her face or up her bum without invitation or a proper polite introduction. Imagine another person, a complete stranger, greeting you this way.
We stood there, my trainer friend and I, holding our dogs, waiting for this woman to gain some control, or to do something, for at least 60 seconds, which is a long time to wait. Finally the woman came over to us and instead of leashing her dogs said, “We come here every day to play and run in this field. They look forward to it.”
I thought to myself, “Well, there are at least 4 other acres in this field in which to play, if you had any control over your dogs. We are doing a specific, organized activity over here in this tiny corner.”
It is unsafe to have dogs off-leash if you cannot call them back to you or have them do an emergency sit or down. Also, imagine walking into the middle of a soccer camp or baseball practice at a local park and just stepping into the middle of it with your kid to play catch. Or worse, imagine your child (or yourself) on a swing at a park and some parent walking up and saying that their kid really looks forward to swinging every day after school, as they just stand there, crowding you. That is not how public spaces work. We share. We take turns. Equipment and space are first come, first serve. We are all entitled to use public parks as long as we abide by the written and social rules of our community.
By the way, the woman had parked her car right in front of a big park sign that clearly stated Dogs Must Be Leashed.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by ANDREVISSER iStock