One of our amazing Featured Experts, Leanne Smith, has put together this blog to help you understand more about your dog and how to help both you and your dog communicate more effectively.


How do I know when my dog ‘knows’ something? This is the $1,000,000 question.

The answer to this question then dictates how we respond to our dogs both in a teaching or training sense and also in an emotional sense.

If we assume that our dog ‘knows’ a behaviour and our dog does not respond correctly, then we can become frustrated or disappointed that our dog has ‘failed’ or assume that our dog has deliberately chosen not to do what we have asked of them.

A wise person once said,“We expect too much from our dogs and not enough from ourselves”.

For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts on knowing when a dog ‘knows’ a behaviour.

I like to think of working with my gundog as a conversation.  I ask a question in the form of some sort of training exercise or set up and then let the dog answer the question with either getting things correct or making an error.  Errors are just information on the state of learning; where the dog is in their understanding of what is being asked.

I look at errors as holes in my dog’s learning which I need to find a way to ‘fill’ by doing more teaching in that area.

Leanne Smith

Principle 1 – Dog’s are very situation-specific with what they learn, they have to learn to generalise behaviours.

In practice, this means that the slightest change in the environment can interfere with a dog’s ability to understand what it is that you want from them.  As you train the same behaviour in 100’s different places with 100’s of successful repetitions, then a dog will begin to generalise a behaviour.

The more educated a dog is, the quicker it can generalise a behaviour as they learn the life skill of generalising.

I am more surprised when behaviour does work in a new situation than if it doesn’t.

Questions to ask ourselves when a dog makes an error: –

  • Have I trained this behaviour in this location under this specific set of conditions?

  • If the location is the same, are the weather conditions the same, dry still weather is low scent conditions, damp windy weather is high scent conditions?

  • Are the distractions the same, different people, different dogs, additional wildlife?

  • Is my dog cognitive right now or is he in the reaction part of his brain?

The answers to these questions will then affect how we need to proceed to help our dogs to give the correct answer to the question that we have asked, in the form of the exercise that we have given them to do.

We have to find a way to help them understand in that situation.

Picture of Erik and Ragnar practicing boundary work in a low distraction environment.

Principle 2 – Dogs do what historically has worked best for them.

This raises the question of motivation.  If my dog understands what is being asked of him, and still chooses to do something different then the value in doing what I asked is not sufficient.

An example of this is my GWP, I never managed to find something that was sufficiently motivating for her to choose to recall away from hunting game.  As a result, I managed her on a long line and harness in the areas that I knew would be an issue, and she free-ran only in areas where I knew she could make correct decisions about the recall.

I learned a valuable lesson from that gundog and now work really hard with all my pups to create the ultimate reinforcer that is more valuable to them than hunting game or anything else.

Principle 3 – 80% or above, the success rate in a given situation with ‘fluency’ is my criteria that my dog ‘knows’ something.

Dogs are not machines and they will make mistakes sometimes, as we all do.  However, if my dog has an 8/10 success rate, I would say that they have a good grasp of what is being asked.  In this article, I define fluency as the ability to quickly repeat the cue multiple times with no deterioration in the quality of response or increase in latency (time to respond from when the cue is given).

Principle 4 – Human error, did I ask the dog the right question or give him the right information?

I heard about some research that has been done looking at the number of errors a dog makes compared to the number of errors a handler makes in a training session.  It turns out that the dogs made four or five times fewer errors than the average handler (from what I can remember).

This is a very important question to keep asking ourselves.  Videoing our training sessions can be very enlightening.  Quite often what we think we are doing; is not what we are actually doing!  We can create confusion in our dog, and not understand why.  Seeing what is we are actually doing, can clear up many training issues, by showing us what we need to change.  This can either be in the way we handle or how we communicate with our dog.

How does this help?

Since I have taken this approach to errors that occur in a teaching or training session, it has helped me to be able to see why my dog wasn’t able to give me the correct answer, which, in turn, has helped to reduce my frustration during working with my dog.

The first processes that I go through when faced with an error are checking in my mind, does my dog understand what I am asking, and is he motivated to do the behaviour.

Once I have recognised the main source of the error, either understanding or motivation, or sometimes both, then I can look at ways to fix it.

When the error is caused by a lack of understanding I look at how I can break the problem down into smaller chunks.  See the example below.

An example – 

My dog is steady at home with one other familiar dog but can’t manage to be steady in a group situation in a different environment.

I would split that down in to stages, only progressing when I get 8/10 success rate

  1. Work on steadiness at home with one unfamiliar dogs
  2. Work on steadiness at home with two unfamiliar dogs
  3. Work on steadiness at home with three unfamiliar dogs
  4. Work on steadiness at home with four unfamiliar dogs
  5. Go to the different environment and work on cue discrimination, stay, retrieve, plus other cues as an only dog.
  6. Work on steadiness in the new environment with one familiar dog
  7. Work on steadiness in the new environment with one unfamiliar dog
  8. Work on steadiness in the new environment with two unfamiliar dogs
  9. Work on steadiness in the new environment with three unfamiliar dogs
  10. Work on steadiness in the new environment with four unfamiliar dogs

I could also split these sections down further if my dog was still making errors.

When the error is caused by a lack of motivation then I will use management to prevent my dog from self-reinforcing in the short term and go back to basics and build better motivators for that dog.  When looking at creating better motivators I start in a very low challenge environment and then work back up to the problem environment.

If my dog looks ’guilty’, does this mean that he understands that he did the wrong thing?

Probably not, is the short answer to that question.

There have been studies done observing dogs’ reactions to situations looking at exactly this question.

A dog was left in a room with a piece of food and told to leave it, the owner then left the room for a short period of time.  They were told to either act happy or cross when they returned regardless of whether the dog had eaten the food or not.

What they found was the dog reacted positively if the owner came back in happy and in a ‘guilty’ way, when the owner came back in the acting cross, regardless of whether or not they had eaten the food.

The dogs were responding to the owner’s body language rather than the situation.

When dogs sense conflict building, they will generally try to appease and diffuse the situation.  Unfortunately for dogs, this behaviour has been labelled as ‘acting guilty’.  The more that the dog tries to appease the owner, the crosser the owner becomes, as they think that the dog is acknowledging wrong doing.  In actual fact, the dog is trying to say please stop being cross.

Dogs are very good at picking up when we are less than impressed.  For some sensitive individuals, indications as slight as a bit of a tut under your breath or a sigh can be enough for them to realise that something is wrong.  Not necessarily what or why something is wrong, but that there is something wrong.

If we look cross when the dog returns to us the chances are that he will sense something is wrong and display some sort of appeasement or displacement behaviour.  What that behaviour is, depends upon the dog’s personality and the level of ‘agro’ being displayed by the handler.

These behaviours can be as extreme as belly crawling, urinating, or rolling on his back.  It could be much more subtle, tail down lower than normal, hindquarters dropped slightly, turning his head sideways onto you, ‘smiling’- where he pulls his lips back in a submissive grin.  It could also be ‘crazy behaviours, having a fit of the zoomies, or playing keep away.

Videoing also helps us to see the really subtle signs of disapproval that we give out and how this affects our dog’s behaviour.

To read more about Leanne’s work or to visit Leanne’s website, please click the button below:

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