I've written about association and dogs a great number of times. Below are two previous blogs on the subject.
The Association Factor
Association - the process of forming mental connections or bonds between sensations, ideas, or memories.
Association is one of the most important things to consider when dealing with dogs; this is how they learn. Yesterday I took my two to the beach. A couple of days before we had gone to a beach area but not walked on the beach. As we drew nearer to the beach Elsa started becoming unglued, once we set foot onto the sandy surface that was that. She was so excited that she immediately started digging like a wild girl. Elsa has always had a thing for sand but with that came the association to the beach. At this point the beach has meant being off leash and pretty much doing as she pleased. This was a tough one for her.
She whimpered and whined in anticipation; she was sure the leash was about to come off. But alas it was not coming off anytime soon. Through our walk she very much resembled a rabbit, often leaping with all fours at the same time. She zoomed, barked and basically exuded all her typical beach antics albeit on the end of her leash. I felt bad that she couldn't get off her leash but I also realized that she needs to learn control. All dogs learn through association; action/reaction. Elsa is a fast learner and things tend to be cast in stone with her in very short order.
Often our dogs learn and ingrain things in their head which we are unaware of. It can take some unraveling to figure out what is going on in those canine heads of theirs. Off leash activities can quickly become just that, off leash. I have seen many dogs who think that off leash means doing what they please. Going to the park and running off leash means that you don't listen to commands, you don't abide by rules and you basically run a muck. So how do you stop this bad association?
Switch it up; as Elsa had to learn yesterday, you can walk on the beach on a leash and live to see another day. Control is important and dogs must learn that even when they are in the area of "free reign" they must listen. When a dog sets environments and behaviors in stone it is essential to change. Luke had the same behavior when he was young with a secret "off leash" spot that we had. So I took him in every so often on leash and worked on obedience; leaving after a good session and not letting him run free.
Doing things that are off the norm is good for dogs. It puts you very much in the driver seat. It does not take dogs long to feel like they are the ones making the rules and running your life and this fact can turn into reality if you are not careful. Letting our dogs have fun is very important but when that fun takes over we need to step in and switch it up. Canine guardians need to take the "we're doing this today," attitude. Human guidance is essential in a human/canine relationship.