Training is hard for one thing because it is so, so hard -- I would say impossible -- for us to be completely consistent. Of course, that is always what we strive for, but no one actually achieves it. Take loose-leash walking, just for example. In my opinion that is one of the hardest things to teach a dog. Oh, it's not hard to get them to the point where, in a training situation, they learn that they won't be moving forward if they're pulling on their leash. But to make it something that they have truly learned -- no pressure on the leash, ever -- is a herculean task. I believe this is completely because we're all inconsistent about it. As a professional dog trainer, it is my job to teach loose leash walking and to be consistent about it. I like to think I do this most of the time. But what about this situation: I'm walking down the hall at work with one of my dogs, who is walking nicely on a loose leash. A door opens on the left and a person with a dog comes out. Their dog rushes forward to greet my dog, and my dog surges toward the other dog, tightening up his leash as he does. He is rewarded with a brief shared sniff and greeting. Even if I react as quickly as is humanly possible, and get his attention back on me and get the loose leash again quickly, the pulling on leash has still been reinforced because it gave my dog what he wanted, access to the other dog. And that's a situation that puts me in an almost blameless light. Let's talk about the other kind -- you know, when you're loading up dogs in the morning and you're late because someone stopped to talk on the way over to the kennel and your teammates are waiting for you and they're loaded and you still have four dogs to load and your dogs are SO excited to get on the truck and you know because of their excitement levels they will come out of the kennel at 100 mph and while you know that they will eventually give you a loose leash if you insist, that might add five minutes to loading each dog so what do you do? I think you know what you do. It's what I do too. You accept anything less than flat-out dragging you, maybe give a couple of ineffective leash corrections, tell yourself the dogs know loose-leash walking, they're just so excited because of the unnatural, stressful environment of the kennel and they can do it everywhere else, tell yourself that continually stopping their forward progress will just build frustration and cause them to lunge at the leash instead of just lightly pull... and there you go, pulling on leash has been reinforced again with getting out of the kennel and getting onto the truck. So human inconsistency is a big part of problems in dog training.
Another problem is that sometimes the things we want dogs to do are very difficult to explain to the dogs. Take curbs, for example. It seems very simple -- stop at the curb. And it was simple when all curbs were high and there were no such things as ramps. Changes in elevation, especially when they are big and obvious like a step up or down, are very salient to dogs. But flat ramps are not. Flat ramps make life so much better for people in wheelchairs, and they are here to stay, and that is a good thing, but their existence is one more complicating factor for a blind person working a guide dog. Here's a picture of a curb:
But wait! Not all ramps have tactile strips! That is true. The majority of the areas we train in do have tactile strips, and sometimes, like in Royal Oak and some places in Birmingham, that is all there is -- a tiny tactile strip on an otherwise wide, flat corner. But not everywhere in the U.S. has tactile strips, that is a fact. So how do the dogs generalize to stopping at corners where there is no tactile strip? Here is my honest answer -- I don't know. My theory is that they come to understand something about "street-ness", and they know that they have to stop before they go into a street, but how they do that and what they are looking for I really don't know. I do know that anything that trainers don't agree on has some degree of abstraction to it, and dogs aren't really good abstract thinkers.
The way I see it, there are at least five potential places a dog has to choose from when deciding where to stop at the above curb:
I am sure that when dogs have trouble learning things we want them to learn, it is because we aren't making it clear to them what we want them to learn. I don't really think it's our fault, though. To me, saying that it's my fault implies that I know a better way to do it but am just choosing not to do it the better way, and that is not true. I assure you if I knew a better way I would be doing it that way. It just seems like dogs are wired to work and learn with us even though the way they learn sometimes makes hardly any sense to me. Aren't we lucky to have them, though?