Can you remember the first time you used a cash machine to get money out of a hole in the wall? I can’t. I’ve no recollection of how or when I acquired the skill. But I know that if I want to get cash out, I have to perform a sequence of pretty complex behaviours to get it. I have to drive to a machine, with a specific card (and only that card will do), be able to read the instructions, recall a number from memory, tap it in and then wait for the money to appear.

I have also learned what doesn’t work to get money out of it. Just standing staring at the machine hopefully doesn’t have the money magically appear. Trying other bank cards doesn’t work. Entering random numbers doesn’t either. Hitting the machine in frustration when I can’t remember the number will also fail. Short of getting some kind of heavy vehicle to ramraid the cash dispenser the ONLY way of getting what I want (cash), is to come up with the behaviours I have learned. Worse, if I continue to ‘guess’ and make too many mistakes, the machine removes all possibility I might get my money by eating my card!

What lessons can we take from this to help our dog training? Loads.

For starters, if I don’t understand how to work a cash dispensing machine, I cannot get any money. It’s not possible. It doesn’t matter how much money is available, or how much I want it or how motivated I am. If I don’t understand how to perform those specific behaviours I will not get the “reward” since the banks have (understandably) made it virtually impossible to get money out if you get the sequence of behaviours wrong.  So if I don’t understand the task, or know how to carry out that sequence of behaviours, how can I manipulate the machine into giving me money? I can’t.  Likewise, it doesn’t matter one iota how much our dogs want the hotdogs, game of tuggie or ball that we are offering them, if they don’t understand the task we expect of them, how can they possibly carry it out unless they are plain lucky, and hit on the idea of what works by sheer chance? And if they do, will they remember what they did, or understand what the cues were to success?

Wren cannot understand ‘fetch’ means bring that toy to me unless or until she is taught it.
That she might hit on the idea of bringing it to me by sheer chance can mean it would be quick and easy to teach, but it wouldn’t mean she understood what the word ‘fetch’ means until I have done a load of training and teaching. 

One message to take from this is that sometimes we completely overestimate how well our dogs understand what we want of them. OK, so the tasks we ask of them may appear simple to us, but that’s because we know what we want the dog to do and because, well, we are humans, not dogs. We function and perceive things differently. But nonetheless, we too frequently, expect them to understand tasks when we haven’t taken the time and trouble to train them so they can understand. So when your dog doesn’t do as you ask, ask yourself – does he really understand? Or is he, like us sometimes, staring helplessly at a cash machine, trying to work out precisely which sequence of buttons to press to get the desired outcome? Or is he guessing and trying random versions that might work?




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