I didn’t know that it was possible to potty train a dog too well, but we found out on a disastrous camping trip at Priest Lake.
You see, little Zoey was taken out every two hours to potty when she was a puppy. She was rewarded with lots of praise and even treats for when she did both #1 & #2. She has her own potty yard – a special area which is fenced off from the rest of the yard. For the first several months of her life, until all of her puppy shots were done, it was always the same routine and location that she pottied in.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know how “precisely tuned” she had become to her specific potty routine and area until when, 24 hours into our trip, she still had not pottied at Priest Lake! We had taken her all over the campground with no success. We figured that being outside, having grass, us talking to her the same way we did at home, and having treats available if she succeeded would easily translate into her knowing what to do. She wasn’t having it. The “specific features” of her potty yard: the kind of grass, the smells, the fence, the security light at night, and other contextual cues, were not there, so she had no clue as to what to do. We were supposed to be enjoying the beauty of the lake, not begging and pleading our dog to do her business.
We didn’t sleep well because every little move she made in the tent made us think she was about to pee on our sleeping bags. When we awoke, we didn’t know whether to be happy or more concerned that our sleeping bags were dry. We thought for sure she would go that morning, but nope. She sniffed every blade of grass in the place, but no dice.
We headed out in our kayaks with Zoey on-board for a couple of hours. At the end of the trip, I started to paddle fast to beach my kayak on the shore. Ten feet from the sand, Zoey jumped out of my kayak. Thankfully, I had her in her harness and her leash wrapped around my leg. (For 2 hours she had been very curious about the gigantic water bowl we had been paddling around in.) I hoisted her out of the water and quickly got on shore. The traumatic event literally scared the pee right out of her. Right then and there she peed 24 hours-worth of pee. Holy cow! It took all of that to override her training.
The stimuli and contextual cues of her yard at home had so much control that she didn’t know what to do in an environment that wasn’t an exact match. At the time, she had a very steep generalization gradient – any deviations severely dropped her response rate. After that trip, we worked on stimulus generalization with her right away. For quite some time she wouldn’t even potty on walks in our neighborhood, but eventually we had success. Our 12 year-old son actually thinks it’s a game now to get her to potty in an assortment of unique places (establishing functional equivalence) like: Grandma’s yard, the patch of grass outside of a Wendy’s, on pine needles, and on the top of Steptoe Butte (his personal favorite). Thankfully, her potty passport is now quite full and we enjoy the ease of her having a much-flattened generalization gradient.