Why do Dogs Forget Obedience they Know?

Life Rewards Make Obedience Stick

“I’m a good girl, can I go out now?”

One of our students recently asked me a great question about “life rewards”. Before I tell you the question and the answer – let’s quickly review this useful concept for dog training. Life rewards are anything your dog loves, that you can reward him with during everyday activities. Classic life rewards are opening doors to go outside, giving a belly rub, or playing a game of tug with a toy or a stick – whatever is available! Anything your dog loves can work. Using life rewards is a powerful way to maintain your dog’s obedience and manners. They make it so that the dog “never knows” when something great might happen, and therefore it is “always worth it” to listen.

Great trainers start using life rewards as soon as possible once a dog knows a new command. For example, once a dog learns a Sit-Stay, you begin asking for it at doorways and make the reward the opening of the door. This example brings us to our student’s excellent question. She asked:

Why do dogs have a hard time when you first switch a trained behavior over to life rewards?

The reasons a dog suddenly “forgets his obedience” when you first start using life rewards can be any or all of the following:

  1. You are likely in a new situation, so the dog has to generalize the behavior to this new situation (remember, dogs don’t generalize well).
  2. There may not be any of the usual “signs of training” present, such as treats or toys you may have used when first teaching the behavior.
  3. The dog is used to getting whatever is in the offing for free, so he doesn’t yet have any motivation to perform a behavior in order to earn what is in the offing (e.g., you usually open the door with no requests and no delay).

Back to our example: Let’s say you have a dog that has learned a great Sit-Stay from all your practice in the living room. He has been rewarded many times from your treat pouch for long Stays, for Stays where you go out of the room, even for Stays where you bounce a ball in front of him. But, now you ask him to do a Sit-Stay in front of the door just before you go out for a walk.

  • Point 1 above: He has never done a Sit Stay in this area of the house before, and especially not when he is this excited to do something (get outside).
  • Point 2: Plus, he doesn’t see or smell any treats, so he is not motivated by that AND he is not reminded of his behavior repertoire by that (two different functions of treats).
  • Point 3: Finally, he has never had to listen to anything before in order to get outside, so he doesn’t “get it”. He may even get frustrated and throw a little tantrum – the stress/arousal makes it even harder for him to focus and comply.

So, there you have it – obedience falling apart when you first try to use life rewards. The good news is that a persistent trainer will find that dogs catch on very quickly to the life rewards game. The hallmark of a good trainer is that you are more patient and persistent than the dog! A few trials where you insist that the life rewards don’t happen without the behavior being performed first – will do the trick.

Happy training. Let us know how it goes for you and get in touch if you’re serious about learning more.

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