dogs multitask

Dogs don't multitask either. Here's why.

Remember the last time you tried to multitask?  Was it as efficient as you hoped? Did you nail accuracy for both tasks? Were you able to remember the important details for both?

Research shows that attempting to multitask is less efficient and wastes time. Our brains can focus on just one thing at a time.

So multitasking is an illusion. The brain is not doing two things at once but instead shifting gears from one to the other. The shift consumes time. The results are less accurate and more difficult to remember.

What does this have to do with training a dog?

First, dogs learn best when focusing on just one new skill at a time. If you're teaching SIT, teach and reward only that. Ignore everything else. Don't change your criteria midstream and not reward SIT because the dog also barked, for example.  Not barking is a separate lesson, so don't expect your dog to know you shifted gears. Dogs don't multitask.

The second way that multitasking can impact your dog's ability to learn is when you try to force a gearshift without first preparing the dog. That happens when your dog is already focused on a distraction but you want him to focus on you instead.  

Remember it's only a distraction because you say so.  From the dog's point of view, it's something of high value and great importance! 

So, for example, if you call him while he is focused on chasing a squirrel, can he easily switch gears and come back to you?

If your dog is pulling on the leash because he's focused on the smells, the people, or other animals, will he stop pulling and walk on a loose leash?

The ideal time to train a reliable recall is NOT while a dog is already committed to running after a squirrel.  Neither is it the ideal time to train loose leash walking when your dog is focusing all his attention on getting to a destination as soon as possible despite the restraint of a leash. Dogs don't multitask, so it's unfair 

Calling a dog off a squirrel and walking on a loose leash in a crowd of people are the final steps of the training sequence, not the beginning. Learning is a cumulative process. The foundation has to be first.  

Dogs don't retain or learn new skills with accuracy while they're absorbed and aroused by something else in the environment.  They don't multitask. 

The ideal time to start teaching a reliable recall is when you are the dog's main distraction. No competition from squirrels! Limit your dog's choices by working in a very low distraction environment. Build a firm foundation.

Set your dog up to be successful. Then reward the successes so that he will want to repeat them. Introduce easy distractions at first and then gradually add more difficult ones. Break each step into smaller, easier steps. Success is motivating.

It's the same for loose leash walking. Start in a distraction-free environment. A dog that pulls on the leash is directing his attention away from you. So begin by reinforcing him for giving you his attention. The environment contains lots of reasons for him to pull.  So introduce environmental distractions very gradually.  Always set the dog up for success. The use of aversive tactics like jerking on the collar are not instructive.

Can you call a dog off chasing a squirrel?  Or walk down a busy street on a loose leash?

Of course, you can! Provided your training goal is willing cooperation and that you add sufficient value for your dog to the choices you want him to make.

You can teach your dog to shift gears but there has to be more value for him in coming back to you than there was in chasing the squirrel. And walking calmly at your side has to be more attractive to him than investigating the environment.

Bottom line? You can get your dog to do what you want if he trusts that what you're offering is the best deal. 

Now, go enjoy your dog!


PS – Here's a blog post that you might enjoy. It's about being your dog's leader and helping him figure things out.


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