We all make associations. Go to a restaurant and find a hair on your plate. What comes to mind the next time you think of that restaurant or even that particular food?
What about the associations we make with a particular smell or food from our past? White Shoulders perfume makes me think of one of my grandmothers. Buckwheat pancakes and Collies make me think of my other grandmother. These are wonderful, feel good associations.
Just as we make associations so do our dogs. Dogs are constantly making associations. It is part of the learning process. Unlike us, where some of our associations can be complicated, dogs tend to make very direct simple associations.
I was once working with a student that at one time had a very good and reliable “stay” cue. Then one day the dog would no longer hold a stay. When I started asking her about what might have happened to the dog during training my student suddenly remembered that the dog had been doing a down stay when it was stung by a bee. Yes, that will do it! The association made by that dog was that in a stay bad things can happen.
Another client had a dog that was highly reactive/aggressive towards other dogs when on walks. When I met up with them at the local park the dog was wearing a prong and shock collar. The dog had quickly learned that bad things happen when strange dogs were around.
On the other hand, when you “click” and then give the dog a treat, the dog will quickly associate the sound of the click with something pleasurable. Hearing a click means good things will happen.
My oldest Rottweiler comes running when he hears the refrigerator door open. Why? because the refrigerator door opening proceeds him getting his dinner. He has learned to associate the door opening with dinner, his favorite pastime.
These associations are why it is imperative that when we work with our dogs we see it from their prospective first. We should ask ourself what kind of associations will be made. Will it be to our dog’s benefit or detriment? How will it effect them down the road? By answering these questions a head of time we can save ourselves and our dogs lost time and frustration. Now, instead, we can set them up for success.