You’ve probably had one of those moments when you’re sure that you taught your dog a cool new trick and then you go to show someone and … your dog doesn’t do it. Why is it that dogs can do something perfectly at home and then seem unable to perform the same thing while at the park or in training class?
Better at Home
It’s frustrating, and even embarrassing, when it feels like your dog is better trained when they’re at home versus when they’re out in the world. Dogs are highly situational, so just because your dog knows how to do something well in one place doesn’t mean they’ll automatically be able to perform the same skill somewhere else. The “better at home” phenomenon is very natural and normal. When you’re at home, your dog is likely relaxed, calm, and comfortable. They know where they are and what is going on around them. In this space your dog can focus on learning new and challenging skills. When you take the skills elsewhere, your dog may need extra support to learn how to do this trick in a new environment.
Pay Attention to Distraction Levels
Just like you wouldn’t ask a kindergartener to do calculus, you want to make sure that you’re asking your dog to perform skills that are appropriate for their age and training level. Always start teaching new skills in areas with low distraction, which gives your dog the ability to focus. Once your dog knows a behavior in a low-distraction environment at home, you can start to work on that skill in more distracting environments like the park or farmers market.
When you’re training in a more distracting environment, you’ll want to bring out the higher-value treats, like hot dog pieces. Be prepared to lure or help your dog out more during the first few repetitions of a trick or cue to remind your dog it’s the same skill they’ve already mastered at home. Learning something new is hard, so until your dog has a solid mastery of a skill, it will be very challenging for them to perform somewhere distracting. Try to set your dog up for success by putting them into training situations where they can be successful with their current level of skill.
Look Beyond Stubbornness
Dog training requires a lot of patience and it can be easy to get frustrated or discouraged. Many people mistake a dog’s lack of understanding—or inability to focus amid distractions—for stubbornness. But if you’re asking your dog to perform a specific behavior and they aren’t doing it, chances are the dog isn’t refusing to comply. Rather, it’s likely that the reinforcement rate is too low, the distraction level is too high, and/or your dog doesn’t yet fully understand the skill and isn’t sure what you want.
Dogs want to please us and they want to learn new things, so a refusal to perform a behavior should be carefully considered. If you’re asking for the behavior in a new area, or with new distractions present, it’s likely your dog’s failure to perform is because what you’re asking for is too complicated for such a distracting environment. That said, if your dog suddenly stops performing a skill they know well in familiar environments, it could mean they are experiencing pain or discomfort and it’s a good idea to schedule a thorough evaluation with your vet.
Intentionally Increasing Distractions
We all want our dogs to listen to us anywhere, but that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s important to slowly and intentionally increase the level of distraction. Think about what is most distracting for your dog. For some, that might be the sight of other dogs or being near people, while other dogs might struggle to focus most when near a barbecue or small animals like squirrels. And for some dogs, it will be all of the above. Slowly build up your dog’s comfort and familiarity with a trick, skill, or behavior. As they become proficient and confident when performing a specific behavior with the current level of distraction, the goal is to increase the distraction level until they can perform that skill anywhere regardless of what’s happening.
A slow progression might be starting to teach a new skill inside your house, then move to your backyard (if you have one), then in front of your house where there might be more things going on, then a quiet neighborhood street, and then finally moving onto training in a park, or other area with more of the distractions that are hardest for your dog. If at any point your dog struggles to perform a skill in a new area just take a (literal) step back and increase your dog’s distance from the distractions before trying again!