The Three C’s of Dog Training: Criteria, Consequences and Consistency

Criteria, Consequence and Consistency — by using these three C’s in your approach to training your dog, you’ll find your dog learns faster and you will both have more fun while learning together.

DaschundEverywhere you look these days there is a new “method” or “system” for training your dog. Dogs have been living with humans for tens of thousands of years and most of those relationships have gone just fine. In fact, not everyone takes their dogs to formal classes for obedience or training. Many people just train their dogs the way they have always done it or seen it done by family, friends, or mentors — and somehow, it works.

World famous animal trainer Bob Bailey has said that animal training “is a mechanical skill”. By this he means that you can teach someone how to do the right actions in the right sequence, and you can show them how to train an animal — any animal — to do any behaviour that animal is physically capable of doing. Sounds like a pretty bold statement, doesn’t it?

Behavioural science and current research happens to back up Bob Bailey’s claims.

The science of Operant Conditioning, pioneered by B.F. Skinner, lays out some clear laws of behaviour that, just as Newton’s Laws of Motion did for inertia and momentum, define and explain how behaviour operates and comes about. By understanding and applying these laws in creative and constructive ways, we can drastically reduce the time it takes to train a dog to “sit” or “back up” as compared to some other hit-and-miss techniques over the centuries.

Nose Touch in Dog TrainingAll training methods come down to what I call the “Three C’s” of training:  Criteria, Consequence, and Consistency. Regardless of whether you use Clicker Training, the Koehler Method, or suggestions from Cesar Millan, you are still using the “Three C’s” in your training.

Let’s take a look at these individually and hopefully you will see what I mean.


Criteria, quite simply, is what we are looking for the animal to do once they are fully trained. On the surface this may seem simple enough, and it is, but it can get complex pretty quickly. Starting with the basics, if I want to teach my dog to “sit”, what are my criteria? Well, I want him to put his butt on the floor while keeping his front end propped up on his fore legs when I give the cue to sit.

But now the questions begin. Where do I want my dog to sit? In front of me? To the side? Close to me? Far away? I may in fact want all of the above but I will need to teach them all individually. What about HOW I want the dog to sit? Is it ok if he flops over onto one hip or must he stay straight? Do I want one fore paw raised in the air? Do I want him looking at me while he is sitting? What about WHEN do I want my dog to sit? Obviously I want my dog to sit when I give the cue but for how long should he sit? Until I release him from that sit?

Finally, in what situations do I want my dog to sit? At home? In the park? In the presence of other people? In the presence of barking dogs? On busy streets? All of these real life situations will present a challenge and will, to an extent, constitute new criteria for this “Sit” behaviour. And again, I will need to consider training in all of these situations to make sure that I have the behaviour I want.

Criteria can be as complicated or as simple as we want it to be, but keep something in mind — we cannot expect our dogs to meet criteria for which they have not been trained! It isn’t really fair to train your dog to sit at home and in the park and then take him to a busy dog show and be angry that he is not able to sit in the middle of the hustle and bustle of all those people and dogs roaming around.

The clearer you can be about our criteria when training, the better results you will get. Knowing up front how, when, where, and under what circumstances you expect the behaviour to happen will go a long way toward helping you prepare your dog to be successful through training. Make sure you make opportunities for your dog to learn everything you want him to learn before you ask him for it in the “real world”.


Consequence is the point on which many training methods differ. All good training systems will have criteria and they will also have equally defined consequences for performance, or non-performance, of the specified behaviour.

Clever dogA number of training methods label themselves “positive” training. These generally involve providing a pleasant or rewarding consequence for performance of a behaviour that meets criteria. Your dog “sits” the way you wanted and they get a cookie or a treat or a pat on the head or access to the backyard. They did what was asked and they got something they want for it. Operant Conditioning calls this “reinforcement” because an animal will be more likely to perform a behaviour if the consequences of that action are pleasant.

Other training methods work on the opposite side of the spectrum. These involve providing an unpleasant or aversive consequence for non-performance of the behaviour that would meet the criteria. In these methods, the animal works to discover the behaviour that stops or prevents the unpleasant consequence from happening. Operant Conditioning calls this “punishment” because the animal will be less likely to perform any behaviours except the one that successfully avoids or stops the unpleasant consequence. [Note: Operant Conditioning is actually a complex science offering a much more detailed terminology and analysis of behaviour than we have space for here, but the examples above suit our purposes.]

In all training, there is a consequence — pleasant or unpleasant — that seeks to encourage the learning of a particular behaviour. What’s important here is that it is what comes AFTER the behaviour. Many humans think of behaviour in terms of how to cause a behaviour to happen by what comes before the behaviour. But according to behavioural science, it is the history of what comes after behaviours that will determine whether that behaviour will be more or less likely to be offered again.


This is where you get to the Magic C! Everything we’ve talked about to this point can begin to fall apart if you are not consistent what you are asking for (Criteria) and what happens after (Consequence) the behaviour occurs. A lack of a consistent experience can slow down or even disrupt training so that the animal fails to learn, or learns an unexpected variation of a desired behaviour.

Consider that training, from the dog’s perspective, probably seems a lot like what we would call a game of “Charades”. In the beginning, it’s a guessing game. It can be a lot of “try this” and “try that” until something seems to work. That process can be unnecessarily complicated if you are not consistent with your communication about what is or is not acceptable.

Once you get your dog on the right track, it’s easy for us to assume that now that he has done the correct behaviour 10 or 15 times, he has the concept down and will “know” it for life. That’s just not the case. It’s easy for me to forget that my dog is not a “furry person” since I spend so much time with her each day. But the truth is, her brain is much smaller than mine and it is structured quite differently. She may need frequent reminders about which version of a behaviour is the one I want.

So it can be important to continue letting your dog know what we want, always being consistent with your criteria and our consequences, to make sure he knows what we expect. In our house, we choose to use rewards for correct behaviour. It’s fun for the dog and it makes us feel good to reward our four-footed partner for working with us.

Three C’s and one T

So far I’ve been talking about the “Three C’s” of training but there is one big “T” that lurks in the background. It’s called THINK! I remember a saying from my earliest days of learning computer programming — “Garbage in – garbage out.” If you wrote bad programs, your results would be similarly bad. And it’s the same with training. if you don’t think about what you want and how you are going to provide consequences.White dog

Most importantly, you need to think while you are training. You can only be consistent if you are mindful of what you are doing. Some trainers like to keep a journal while training to help keep them on track; others are just naturally good at keeping things on track. Whatever your particular situation, it’s important to make sure you have your training together before you begin working with your dog. It’s not just efficient; it’s also it’s kinder to them if you are clear and consistent.

For myself, I find that these little formulas and memory tricks to help keep me on track with my training can save me an awful lot of time and wasted effort. I encourage you to look at your own training and see where you can apply the “Three C’s” to better effect. I find that there are new ways to look at my dog and my training every day, and, most importantly, it’s lots of fun for both of us.

Training shouldn’t be hard and it shouldn’t take a lot of time. There are lots of ways to train but if you keep the “Three C’s” in mind, you may find your dog is picking up on your training faster and with less stress as he plays that “guessing game” to find what you want him to do. Have a look at how you work with your dog and see if there are ways you can improve on any of those C’s. Is your Criteria clear enough? Are you providing clear Consequences with good timing? Are you being Consistent in these things?

And don’t forget the important “T” — THINK! Just take a bit of time to consider what you are doing before you train and I think you will find that things can be easier for both you and your dog.

Until next time, have fun training with your dog!

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Photo Credits
Sitting – Clevergrrl 2009 Flickr
Clever – Redjar 2005 Flickr
Nose touch – Cryrolfe 2008 Flickr
Teach me -Bugeaters – 2008 Flickr

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  1. avatar says

    Very good article! You did a very good job of presenting the basics of operant conditioning. This post is also very readable, and that’s a hard target to hit when talking about something that is actually pretty complicated to explain. I know this from experience. I’ve been trying to cover the same ground recently on my site and you’ve done a much better job than I was able to achieve. Hats off!

  2. avatarLydia says

    Nice summary Eric. I recently discovered just how sloppy my training has been, because I didn’t clearly define in my head the criteria for which I would reward my dog!!! I agree with Sandra, it does sound very simple, but in fact it requires thought and planning.

  3. avatarSandra says

    Nice breakdown of the mechanics of training. A simple enough concept, unfortunately not always so simple to implement.


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