Is there anything more frustrating than asking a dog to behave, only to find that real life happens?  No amount of pleading, begging, cajoling, demanding, cookie waving works.  The dog chooses real life distractions.  I’d wager that this frustration drives people to seek help.  They lament:

“I just want him to listen.  He knows what to do, but he won’t do it in the real world.  Nothing beats real world distractions.”

When I started out, I may have even said these words.  Then I learned better.

Most people run into issues training their dogs because they have been sold what is a half truth.  And a half truth is essentially a lie by omission.

The lie goes something like this…

“Teach your dog a skill, and then ask for it in the real world and your dog will be good.”

For example, many are told that if they teach their dog to sit, then their dog will stop charging visitors at the door.  The dog cannot simultaneously sit and rush to the door or jump on people.  It sounds good on paper.  Except, most people end up with a dog that sits nicely when no one is around.  When someone comes to the door, all hell breaks loose.

Ultimately, they wind up nagging the dog with repeated requests to sit.  Sit – sit – sit – SIT!

They bring out cookies, waving them about, hoping that maybe liver, chicken, cheese, a little Kobe beef with chicken stock reduction and anchovy dust sprinkles might finally be valuable enough to beat the difficult distraction of strangers at the door.  I jest on the Kobe, sort of.  It illustrates how many people feel that they are chasing the magic treat.  Others resort to force.  Nothing seems to work.

Some trainers might even suggest private sessions in the real world.  If the problem is in the real world, then that is where they train.  As we’ve already seen, training in the real world was an epic failure.  Who wants to live through the begging, cajoling, pleading, cookie waving and frankly embarrassment of an out of control dog at the door when it’s a chaotic nightmare?  It shouldn’t be this hard.

“Teach the dog a skill and then the dog will do it in the real world,” is wrong.  That’s just not how dog training works.  It’s an over simplification that I think needs to be clarified.  Your dog is normal.


Think of real world obedience problems as two sets of skills.  BOTH are being reinforced.  The dog has rightfully worked out that if someone is at the door, they may get attention, affection and all sorts of good things.  Let’s be honest.  They’re kind of right.

Over time, this sequence of events has been consistently repeated and reinforced.  The dog has been strongly reinforced for undesirable behaviour.  Every time it happens in the future, it will continue to be reinforced further.

Sounds like knocking, a doorbell, etc., becomes the cue or command that tells the dog to rush the door.  With repetition this behaviour becomes strong, robust and difficult to overcome.

Families, in an attempt to correct the problem, take an obedience class.  The dog learns things like sit in a class setting.  Families diligently practice obedience in the kitchen where few distractions exist.  The dog gets good at listening if there is nothing better to do.  It’s the RIGHT start.  Key word is START.

The start of these new skills fails to hold up in the real world.  The doorbell rings and the dog defaults to the stronger, highly reinforced behaviour of “rush the door.”

Imagine the problem like two arm wrestlers.  Competitor one has been training for years and has participated in many matches.  She has biceps that bust out of t-shirts.  Competitor two started working out a month at the gym.  No arm wrestling practice.  Their teeny tiny little biceps are just starting to develop a little bump.

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You know who’s going to win.  The power house is the likely winner.  The only way things are going to change is if the newbie trains more and enters many competitions or rehearsals and/or the power house slacks off and loses strength.

The real world dog training problem is the same.  The strong behaviour of charging at the door is going to win unless it stops working.  Or, the new behaviour of sitting on a mat has to become a super strong contender.  Even better, both should happen.  You can’t just teach a skill, drill for a couple weeks and hope you beat an old, strong problem behaviour.

Does this mean obedience classes are bad?  Absolutely not.

Obedience classes are a great start.  Advanced level classes are great as a second step.  You wouldn’t say that training at the gym is bad for the arm wrestler.  Learning and practicing in a controlled environment builds skill.  You should do classes.

Can you skip classes and train in the real world?  Bad idea.

Bob Bailey has often said that anything, given enough time and effort will likely work.  Back to the arm wrestling example.  Hypothetically, you might find an arm wrestler who perseveres long enough.  They have the stamina and fortitude to lose over and over until their muscle starts to bulk up from competing.  In the dog training world, these type of people are often called the “ideal client.”  They work when most normal people would quit out of frustration.  While they exist, I have never understood why one would take the frustrating path.  Why fight with die hard determination when a better solution exists?

To beat real world problems, one needs to build power in desired behaviour and weaken the undesirable behaviour.

Train through a variety of other distractions first.  Build power through repetition and variation.  For example, families can teach a dog to sit on a mat away from the door despite temptations like food, toys, knee slapping.  No visitors required.  Just build that behavioural “muscle” until it has a strong history.  Create a path towards the ultimate goal.

Simultaneously, weaken the old problem.  Record knocking at your door.  Play it through the day and don’t react to it.  At other times, walk to the door, as if planning to open it, then don’t.  Say, “Hello!  How are you?” to no one.  You want to convince the dog that all these cues no longer predict visitors.

When entering the house, stay calm, walk past the dog.  Resist the urge to amp them up at the door.  Convince the dog that, “There is no reason to get up and go to the door.  It used to be fun, but now it is boring.”  No real world visitors required to drill.  You can get loads of work accomplished by devaluing the old cues.

(This by the way is why many pros and shops have dogs that can’t be bothered to get up when people come to the door.  They live in a world where the door is always opening and closing.  They learn, “nothing to do with me.”)

Avoid saboteurs.  Each person who sabotages the plan is reinforcing the old problem behaviour.  They are essentially building power and mass into the behaviour you want to weaken.  They’re doing you no favours.

Most importantly, bring the real world into the mix only when the new behaviour has become strong enough to succeed AND the old behaviour has been weakened.  Set dogs up for success.  When dogs are set up for success, so are their people.  It’s really far more enjoyable to train this way.

People who tend to succeed in overcoming real world challenges understand that it’s not, ‘Teach a dog a skill and they will do it.”

It really is, “Create a path to success – build power in new skills – weaken the cues and the behaviours you do not like.”