Bridging the Gap Between Training Sessions & Real Life

I told you last week that behavior challenges come in waves, and I’ve been hearing this one quite a bit this past week:

“He’s great in training sessions, but won’t do it in real life situations.”

Show of hands, how many of y’all have been here before? Yep, me too. The hard thing is that this is often when people STOP training. At this stage, you’ve already invested time, energy, and sometimes money into getting your pet to this level. And they’re still not where you need them to be. It’s frustrating. It’s disheartening. And it feels like training doesn’t work.

But! All that this means is that you haven’t completed the learning process. You’re only halfway through at this stage. I talked about this last year in a post called “Why You Should Care About the Stages of Learning”. Today, though, I want to share another aspect of what’s going on when your pet can perform a behavior in a training session but not yet in real life. 

Let’s Talk Antecedents

Terminology alert: antecedents. [Immediate] Antecedents are those cues that tell an individual that a particular behavior-consequence contingency is available. Whoa. Too technical. Let’s break that down further…

There are different ways in which we learn. One of those ways is through the past consequences to our actions. This is often what we think of when we think of animal training. If the dog sits he gets a cookie. If the cat jumps on the counter he gets sprayed with water (just an example, we don’t recommend doing this). These are behavior-consequence contingencies. “If I do x, then y often happens”

Specific behavior-consequence contingencies aren’t always available. The antecedent tells the individual if it is or isn’t. For example, when I was little I burned my fingers while on a camping trip by picking up a grate that had been in a recently doused fire. You better believe that I learned that particular consequence that touching a hot grate hurt like heck in that single-learning event and have since avoided doing that. That’s only true, though, when the antecedent is: the grate was recently in a fire. When the antecedent is different, I pick up the grate without a second thought because that painful behavior-consequence contingency isn’t there. The antecedent tells me an important part of the puzzle as far as what I should expect the consequence to be. 

What’s included in the antecedent?

Hoo boy, a bunch of things. While a lot of times you’ll hear the antecedent being referred to as simply the cue (eg: saying “sit”), really it’s the entire picture. This is often why your pet can perform a behavior in a training session but not the very different picture that real-life situations provide. Let’s illustrate that with an actual picture of me working with one of my favorite cats in the whole wide world: Grey. 

Photo by Molly Wald

From this one picture, we can see a lot of factors included in that antecedent picture that told him this was a training session:

  • Location: we always trained together in his cattery
  • Position: I always sat while we worked together
  • Presence of food & a clicker: clicker in hand, jar of baby food next to me
  • Handler: our interactions together were always training interactions (teacher’s here; we’re going to learn new stuff!)

All of these factors told Grey that this was a training session and that there was a lot of opportunity for treats depending on his behavior. Change any of those factors and his behavior is also likely to change. 

In short: your pet knows when it’s a training session and when it isn’t.

Why does it matter if it’s a training session?

There are two main reasons why I see this being an important distinction with my clients’ pets: 

  1. The behavior-consequence contingency is different in training sessions vs. real life
  2. For pets with anxiety-related behaviors, training sessions aren’t always scary and real life often is

Let’s look at that first one.

The behavior-consequence contingency is different

Since we adhere to a LIMA training philosophy, I’m going to talk about this point in relation to treats vs. no treats, but know that this is true for other training or management tools too (eg: this is why dogs who walk politely on a prong collar usually don’t when the collar isn’t on). Treats happen quite a bit in training sessions. For many households though, treats don’t happen frequently when the humans aren’t in “training mode”. 

In short: training session = possibility of treats, real life = no possibility of treats

Here’s where many people ask, “But shouldn’t they do it anyway even if there are no treats?” Here’s the thing. All behavior serves a function to the individual performing it. Period. End of story. That’s the reason that we stop going to work if we stop getting paid. Now, we don’t necessarily need to treat every time (a conversation for another time), but we can’t completely get rid of our behavior-consequence contingency. You’ve likely already experienced what happens when we do. 

For pets with anxiety-related behaviors, training sessions aren’t always scary and real life often is

I see this a lot when I’m working with clients whose pets have stranger danger and we’ve started working on the doorbell. The pet will sometimes learn very quickly that doorbells are safe when played during a training session. However, that usually doesn’t immediately translate to doorbells being safe when they happen in real life. No one comes in the door during a training session but they do in real life. We need to do more work for that translation to take hold by continuing through the stages of learning. 

How can I bridge the gap between training sessions and real life situations?

It’s a matter of proofing! Proofing, or generalization, is a necessary step in the stages of learning. To bridge the gap, we need to work on the same behavior in situations where the antecedent picture gradually morphs from “training” to “real life”. Factors can include:

  • Your attention (is it on the dog or on regular tasks?)
  • Where your treats are
  • Location
  • Distraction-level
  • Other household pets being present

And so many more! Many pets have excellent attention to detail; never assume that a small factor can’t make a difference. 

Now what?

  • Choose one situation in which your pet does great while training, but hasn’t yet generalized the behavior to real-life situations.
  • Determine all the factors that you can think of that make the training session different from the real-life situation.
  • Choose one of those factors and incorporate that change into your training session. Only pick one at a time!
  • When your pet is successful with the previous step, choose one more factor to integrate. Repeat in this fashion. 
  • If you’re struggling with how to do this, you’re not alone! This is a large reason why trainers & behavior consultants exist; we have experience breaking down those factors and strategically incorporating them. Email us at [email protected] to set up a session so we can help you!

Happy training!