I read a post on a dog training forum about consistency. It was not much of a discussion as everybody seemed to agree that being strict was not ok, but being consistent was ok.
They say things like “I want my dog to sit when I say sit, every time, everywhere.”
What I found interesting was that they did not say
I am consistent, but
I want consistency.
This is where the problem lays, in my eyes.
I also want that my dogs to sit when I say sit, every time. I also want them to recall every time, and to down every time, and to not chase bunnies in the forest or be crazy when the garbage truck comes.
But to facilitate that, I try to be as consistent as possible in my training. This means that I carry rewards (food and toys) wherever I think we might run into a potential training situation (pretty much everywhere). I reward them a lot.
When I am on a walk and meet somebody I do not ask them to sit, and then turn to my neighbor to chat without rewarding or releasing them.
The job is not done when we cue our dogs to do something, and they do it. Their job is done, but ours is just coming up: How to reward them in a way that they are likely to do it again.
The dogs have to see our consistency in rewarding the good choices. Unfortunately, they often just see consistency in punishing (even the good) choices. How often do you see owners unsuccessfully trying to recall their dogs from playing with other dogs? And when they finally come, the owner puts on a leash and takes the dog home, every single time? He teaches the dog very well what to do by mapping out the choices and their consequences: Not recalling means playtime, recalling means go home.
Being consistent even means to lower criteria. When I take my puppy to an exciting place, maybe all I ask her to do is eat a cookie out of my hand. I do not need her to be consistent in sitting when I tell her to, I just want her to know I am consistent in making training fun and not asking more than she can do.
Sounds crazy? Consider a human example:
When I was a kid, I used to play the recorder. I was very good in my living room, but whenever we had a concert and I had to play in public, I would get anxious, sweat, my fingers would tremble and everybody can imagine the sound quality of a recorder played by sweaty and shaky fingers.
My teacher was very kind. After every performance she praised me and told me what I good job I had done, and she would point out the good parts.
If she had been consistent in her criteria, and if she had expected consistency from me she would have told me that it was absolutely terrible, way worse than any practice and sent me home sad and feeling worthless.
Instead she was consistent in her kindness and her ability to see the good parts of my performance, whatever they might be (in the beginning, just a couple of notes).
Over time those parts got longer and longer, until one day I could play a whole piece, or even several pieces without trembling.
Do not “expect” consistency from your dog – just be so consistent yourself that it will naturally happen.