As any reputable trainer or dog training book will tell you, canine learning is based largely on repetition. When a behavior is repeated enough times, dogs develop habits, or conditioned responses. Assuming that those habits are positive ones such as eliminating outside, coming when called, lying down and staying when told, and others – you will have what you want: a trained dog. That’s because dogs are creatures of habit. Once you set up a routine of various signals and conditioned responses (sit, down, stay), the dog will do exactly what you tell him every time. Right? No exactly…
No conditioned response is infallible. Creatures with advanced brains can think. They can defy conditioning. They also can make mistakes. Think about two of your own conditioned responses. You have a habit of answering the telephone when it rings, but one day you decide not to take any calls. The telephone rings but you keep reading your book. You know what you usually do, but today you decide not to do it. You also have a habit of stopping your car at a red light. But one day you are tired or distracted and you roll through an intersection. Even the most experienced drivers sometimes make mistakes.
Similarity, there will be times when even the best-trained dog will either defy conditioning or make a mistake. Therefore you must avoid becoming complacent or overconfident about learned behavior. Do not rely on conditioned responses in potentially dangerous situations. For example, you should never unleash even the best-trained dog near a busy road. One mistake could result in injury or death to my dog.
Owners need to reinforce their dog’s conditioned responses. Certainly the more practice and proofing you do with a dog, the more reliable his response will be. Skilled human beings, from tennis pros to typists, need practice to stay in top form. This is because all learned skills need reinforcement.
When you feel you have achieved a well-trained dog, continue to practice obedience exercises once in a while. It can be fun for both you and the dog. Plus it reinforces the good behaviors you worked so hard to achieve. When you need to call on those skills in real situations, such as doing a stand-stay at the veterinarian’s office, you will be more confident that your dog will comply. Your dog will be more confident by doing something that is familiar – and for which he can earn your praise.