My New Car: Thoughts on Fluency

Like many dogs, I have a lot of anxiety related to traveling in the car. This anxiety, in fact, was so overwhelming, that I didn't...


Like many dogs, I have a lot of anxiety related to traveling in the car. This anxiety, in fact, was so overwhelming, that I didn’t get my driver’s license until last year, shortly before my 30th birthday.

I use the analogy of me learning to drive to explain the process of building mechanical skills to my students. Much like they struggle to master the art of clicker and reinforcement timing, mechanics, and delivery, I initially found learning to drive to be a challenge – it required a lot of concentration, and a significant amount of stress (hey, conquering anxiety is not easy, just ask a fearful dog!). I was not immediately perfect at this skill – in fact, I made some mistakes at first (switching the wrong blinker on or the windshield wipers instead of the blinker!) but these errors quickly went away as I got more practice. At this point, over a year later, I’m fairly comfortable driving (although tractor trailers still make me very nervous).

I explain to my clients that once you’ve been driving for ten or twenty years, it’s probably an automatic skill – you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to concentrate so hard. You just do it. Clicker training is much the same; initially you will make mistakes, you will feel awkward, you will drop your clicker and/or treats, you will have poorly timed clicks, but once you have been doing it for a while, juggling a leash, clicker, and treats becomes “old hat.” At least with clicker training the worst thing that happens if you make an occasional mistake is that your dog gets an extra treat. It is not catastrophic, not the end of the world, and won’t permanently scar your dog. (Mistakes while learning to drive, however, can have much greater consequences!)

Trainers often say that dogs “don’t generalize well.” This means that it takes many repetitions of a skill in many new environments and for many various aspects of fluency before the behavior can actually be deemed reliable. Clients often say, “my dog ‘knows’ how to sit,” when in fact they mean, “my dog knows how to sit in my living room when there are no distractions in the environment, my body is facing my dog less than two feet away from my dog, and I am making eye contact with my dog.” This does not mean that the dog “knows” sit:

  • in the living room
  • when other people or dogs or present
  • on a walk
  • if you cue the behavior while sitting or lying down
  • in your yard
  • in training class
  • at the dog park
  • if anyone else asks him to sit
  • if you are wearing sunglasses, a puffy coat, or a gorilla costume
  • at your friend or in-law’s house

Recently, I got a new vehicle. I loved my mini-van (great dog mobile, and certainly will be getting another in the future), but my new wheels are a Mazda Tribute. While I already “know” how to drive, acclimating to this new vehicle is a process that’s taking a bit of time. The gas is stickier, the brakes are touchier. All of the knobs, handles, and controls are in new places. The rear-view mirror blind spots are a bit different. So while I’m pretty good at driving A car, I’m very new and still learning how to drive THIS car. It won’t take me as long to learn the fine points of operating this vehicle as it did for me to learn the skill of driving initially, but I also can’t just hop into a new vehicle for the first time and have this skill be as automatic, fluent, and unconscious as it was with the van.

I’ve had the Tribute on the road for a week now, and am already much more comfortable with its operation than I was last week. The next time I get a new vehicle, I will have to repeat the acclimation process – not because I’m stupid, not because I don’t know how to drive, but because generalizing known skills in new contexts is a process. Each subsequent car will probably be easier to adjust to than the previous, but there will always be an adjustment process.

The next time you train with your dog in a new environment, be patient – remember, he’s “learning to drive a new car.” Help him be successful by adjusting your criteria accordingly. Be patient and build up new distractions or other fluency criteria systematically – I took the Tribute down the street to the grocery store or gas station a few times before I had it out on the highway. Much like you’d probably never enter your teenager, who just got his license three weeks ago, in a Grand Prix race, don’t throw your dog, who has only practiced “sit” or “come” in your living room into the hustle and bustle of a dog park and expect him to be successful; doing so will only set you and your dog up for failure and frustration!

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