I heard this quote on Karen’s Clicker Magic DVD and it kind of stuck with me. She was working on “down” with an Irish water spaniel, and every time Karen changed her position the dog forgot everything it had just learned.
To me this statement means that any time you change anything about your training the dog thinks you’re teaching him a brand new skill. For example, no matter how well Wally knows the basics of “leave it” (stop touching my hand and look away) he goes back to square one if I move to a different corner of the room or change my hand position. It’s been said so many times that dogs don’t generalize well and this just makes that all the more clear. This is why your Lab with a perfect sit-stay in the backyard suddenly goes deaf at the local park: to him that’s a whole ‘nother skill!
So how do you overcome this difference in learning style? Obviously you can’t train a dog like you would a child because kids are human and can generalize (oh settle down, teaching kids and training dogs are the same idea). With dogs you have the distinct pleasure of repeating the same training for the same cue over and over in numerous locations with various distractions and from every position. This is also known as “proofing the dog”. If you proof enough you’ll have a dog that stays in any situation, including the one where if he doesn’t stay he’ll be hit by a semi on the freeway. He’ll also be calm in any situation because he’s been in so many that he has a big bank of experiences to draw on for behavior cues. This makes him a pleasure for you to live with and for others to visit.
Sometimes it’s frustrating because you just know that he knows what to do, but at times like that think of Karen Pryor and remember that you’re basically teaching someone with zero short-term memory. In a way it’s a blessing because he’ll forget all the things you did wrong! :)